The Short Answer: Bonnie Burnham

Bonnie Burnham is president of the New York City-based World Monuments Fund, the oldest private advocate for the built environment worldwide and the publisher of a biennial list of 100 most-endangered sites.  

Bonnie Burnham

Credit: Denis Finnin

Interview by Salvatore Deluca

What makes a monument?

The site must be a rare or unique survivor of a culture. Lately, there are sites that people normally don't think of as important, like the Hanging Flume, an industrial mining relic in western Colorado. As a whole, the preservation movement is embracing a broader definition of what constitutes significant heritage value.

Is this change of scope a good thing?

Yes. When we involve ourselves with the Taj Mahal, the Valley of the Kings, or even Mesa Verde, people easily understand what those famous sites represent to the world. But when we're working with other sites that are not as well known, it challenges people to think about that very question, "What is a monument?"

Time, war, and politics are destroyers of monuments. Which is the biggest threat?

In a global context, unquestionably, the biggest is war. In addition to destroying buildings, armed conflict destroys the entire national capacity to deal with heritage. In the United States, we have been left out of that terrible scenario for the last 140 years, so the challenges here are slightly different. The effects of time and neglect are often benign; threats usually emerge when political action or communal decisions start moving the clock forward. Furthermore, more catastrophes are man-made than aren't, and these include a lot that aren't necessarily political—like the building of the Aswan Dam to control the Nile River in Nubia.

How damaging has the war in Iraq been?

The entire study of the country's archaeological record has been set back in ways that are almost impossible to describe. Of course, until some kind of stable environment prevails, we won't even know the extent of the damage, but the aerial photographs and reports on the ground are very, very distressing. Cities such as Baghdad and Mosul have been decimated, and the condition of standing sites like Samara and Babylon is just as dire.

What can be said about the Buddha statues in Afghanistan that the Taliban destroyed several years ago?

Making a cheap political statement by destroying something other people value is worrisome and a relatively recent development. This happened in the Balkans, too. Prosecuting people who have targeted monuments has helped. For example, the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague considered the shelling of Dubrovnik, Croatia, a crime against humanity. It was a necessary political reaction for the physical destruction of that city to be considered an atrocity.

How does the preservation instinct differ in various parts of the world?

An acknowledged value—when you say, "I care about the built environment, and I am a preservation advocate"—is something that's learned. So the instinct, if it's not nurtured, doesn't develop into a committed concern that articulates itself as a public engagement. In Europe, where preservation ideas developed in the 19th century, there is a strong public awareness. In America, too, this is the case. But in other parts of the world, people have not been taught to think along these lines.

Why are there so few structures in this country on the World Heritage List?

While other countries are willing to put the historic center of Venice, the riverbanks of the Seine, or Katmandu Valley on the list, you're not going to see similar gestures under current U.S. policy. This administration has taken a political stance to not be overly zealous about nominating new sites to the list. Because the U.S. interpretation of the program has been largely environmental—it's under the stewardship of the National Park Service—there seems to be concern about sovereignty and conflicts with economic activities like natural resource exploration, mining, and logging. The act of listing a city, for which you need 100 percent owner consent, also presents big obstacles.

What are some U.S. sites that merit inclusion in the list?

Whether it's the center of Boston, Central Park in New York City, Annapolis, or Charleston, we need to recognize certain historic cities. Cultural landscapes, like the Amish Country in Lancaster County, Pa., are another worthy example. Other countries use the World Heritage Convention like a shield around a cluster of sites that they consider important but that may not be physically connected to each other. In the United States, there's a fear of losing local control and undermining our values of business-first and the sanctity of private property.

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