ICOMOS and the International Polar Heritage Committee (IPHC)

by Ms Susan Barr, President ICOMOS IPHC

ICOMOS – the International Council on Monuments and Sites – is the cultural heritage counterpart to IUCN as an Advisory Body to UNESCO regarding World Heritage Sites. ICOMOS assesses cultural heritage nominations to the World Heritage List and carries out evaluations and monitoring of sites on the List.

ICOMOS is an NGO – Non-Governmental Organisation – consisting of cultural heritage professionals within a wide range of disciplines: archaeology, historical archaeology (ethnology), art history, architecture, heritage management, geographers, town planners, and similar. There are currently approximately 7500 members of national committees of ICOMOS in 110 countries.

ICOMOS was founded in 1965 and its work is based on the international Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites, known as the Venice Charter. Since this charter was written, several further charters and a Code of Ethical Standards have been adopted by the national committees and members. ICOMOS is the only global NGO dedicated to the scientific techniques, theory and methodology of the conservation of architectural and archaeological heritage. ICOMOS forms a network of experts and interdisciplinary exchange which works on standards and techniques for the preservation of each type of cultural property: buildings, historic cities, cultural landscapes, archaeological sites, and now the intangible heritage has recently been thoroughly discussed and adopted as an important facet of the heritage work.

Most of the work of ICOMOS is done through its National Committees and through the International Scientific Committees (ISCs). In order to raise the effectiveness of the ISC work, the leaders of each ISC have formed a Scientific Council which particularly addresses various topical themes of global significance. Global climate change, cultural tourism and the rapid development within historic cities are some such themes. In addition each ISC has just completed nominations of experts within its special field who are capable of and willing to undertake World Heritage missions, either in the field or as desk work.

The IPHC – International Polar Heritage Committee – is one of the newest of the Scientific Committees of ICOMOS. It was founded 1st November 2000 to bring together experts working in both or one of the polar regions. The committee’s foundation concentrated primarily on the “visitor heritage” of the Arctic and Antarctic, since this is where the similarities mainly lie. This means the monuments and sites from the early exploration, scientific work and resource exploitation of both regions. This recognises the fact that, for example, the explorer and trapper huts of the Arctic closely resemble the explorer huts of the Antarctic, both in structure, material and current conservation challenges, in the same way as the sealing and whaling sites of both regions resemble each other. However, the indigenous cultural heritage of the Arctic is by no means forgotten. IPHC members, who work in the Arctic, have both indigenous and non-indigenous heritage intertwined in their work, and the statutes of the IPHC declare that the committee shall “Consult and co-operate with Arctic indigenous peoples regarding heritage of cross cultural significance”.

The objectives of the IPHC are further noted as to:

  • Promote international co-operation in the protection and conservation of cultural heritage in the Arctic and Antarctic
  • Provide a forum for interchange of experience, ideas, knowledge, and the results of research between administrators, archaeologists, conservators, historians, legislators and other professional
  • Promote international studies and projects
  • Expand technical co-operation by fostering links with specialised institutions.

The IPHC accepts as Expert Members only those who are actively engaged in polar heritage work. In addition there is an Associate Member category for persons interested in polar heritage and who are able to contribute in some way to the work of the committee. Expert members so far come from Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Sweden, UK and USA. We would welcome relevant experts from Denmark/Greenland, as well as more expert members from the named countries or others with active polar interests. The secretariat consists of the President (currently Susan Barr) and the Secretary General (currently Paul Chaplin from New Zealand), and is financially supported by the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage.

The guiding principle for the work of the IPHC is that all evidence of previous/finished human activity in the polar areas has a potential significance for the documentation and understanding of the history of these areas and should be expertly assessed with an eye to possible designation as a cultural heritage site before being altered or removed. We recognise that there is little “untouched” wilderness in the High Arctic and that the interrelation of nature and culture is particularly relevant and obvious here. The understanding of why and how a structure or settlement was established is to be found in the understanding of the nature around it.

In addition we wish to emphasise the international aspect of polar heritage. This is already recognised in the Antarctic, which is an international area, while the Arctic is liberally covered with heritage belonging to another nation than the one now owning the territory. For example there are important heritage sites originating from Russians, Dutch, British, Americans, Swedes and others in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Russian Zemlja Frantsa Iosifa has important sites from early explorers from Norway, America and England, as well as from Russia. The IPHC hopes to be able to influence the managers of all such sites to take this international connection into consideration in their management practices.

The IPHC suggested the global change challenges as the first main programme for the ICOMOS Scientific Council, and we have been closely involved in this since. The Arctic has been internationally recognised as the region where climate warming is most obvious, and the strongly decreased sea-ice situation and milder and wetter weather has particularly negative effects on the cultural heritage, which in the High Arctic is concentrated to a large extent along the coasts. Coastal erosion has always occurred, but is now increasing at a devastating rate for the coast-near monuments and sites. Rotting and rusting and other deteriorating effects follow the milder and wetter weather and freeze-drying is no longer the support we can lean on as before. Not least the increased tourism which is enabled by the milder weather and less sea ice can have a negative impact on the fragile heritage sites despite all positive wishes to the contrary.

The IPHC conducts most of its communication by email, but is committed to holding a member meeting every third year during the ICOMOS General Assembly, and tries to hold one additional meeting in between. We met this September in Barrow, Alaska as an expert conference considering the protection and preservation of historical polar scientific bases. A live video-telephone discussion with artefact conservators at the New Zealand Scott Base in Antarctica was a “pole-to-pole” highlight and possibly the geographically longest such live picture-and-speech broadcast on Earth so far. Our next meeting will be in Quebec in October 2008.

With regard to future World Heritage work in the Arctic, the IPHC has through its member network a good circum-arctic overview of the cultural heritage of the region, which is useful for comparative analyses. The committee would particularly focus on management plans with regard to tourism impacts.

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