On Monday evening, Irina Bokova, director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, spoke to a large crowd gathered at the Yale School of Management for the U.N. Global Colloquium of University Presidents.
Bokova, a native Bulgarian, assumed her responsibilities with UNESCO in 2009, becoming the first woman to lead the organization, and was tasked with responding to significant threats to global cultural heritage. Since her re-election in 2013, Bokova has dealt with various international threats to cultural patrimony, including the destruction inflicted on the ancient city of Palmyra by Islamic State militants and the conservation efforts following its retaking from the extremist group earlier this year. Recently, Bokova launched UNESCO’s global “#unite4heritage” movement, building on ideas about heritage and its value to humanity, as well as the importance of educating youth about history as a tool for looking ahead.
“Culture is a force for resilience, giving people strength and confidence to look toward the future,” Bokova said.
During her talk, Bokova emphasized the importance of cultural heritage sites not merely in terms of their historical or aesthetic value, but also with regards to their social meanings for particular communities.
Bokova discussed several examples of the use of cultural heritage conservation as a tool to bolster communities’ spirits, such as the rebuilding of historic mausoleums in Timbuktu, which had been threatened by desertification. Further, Bokova said, working to conserve a community’s monuments is a crucial step in preserving its history, a gesture with important consequences for the fight against extremist ideologies.
“Extremists destroy heritage because they are afraid of history, because history delegitimizes them,” Bokova noted. “They do not choose between people and culture. They attack both, and we need to protect both.”
Gustavo Araoz, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, praised Bokova’s speech and work, noting that her emphasis on cultural heritage was unprecedented among her predecessors.
While Araoz said that outdated approaches and legislation in the field are still challenges to contemporary heritage conservation efforts around the globe, he added that Bokova’s work remains important in building new models for such activities. Katherine Slick, former president of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Alumni Foundation, highlighted the timely coincidence of the colloquium falling on the 50th anniversary of the United States’ National Historic Preservation Act, noting that the event 50 years ago marked American preservationists’ initial forays into the development of international techniques of conservation.
“This is a nice reversal of that, [and] bringing people from around the world to here,” Slick said.
During her lecture, Bokova underlined the importance of talking about heritage with young people and teaching them that all cultures permeate and influence one another.
Araoz further emphasized his faith in youth, noting in particular their commitment to “making the world a better place.”
“The strong message is precisely this notion that we are different, but we are one humanity,” Bokova said. “Behind any culture, there will be and there can be outstanding objects and sites of universal culture.”