Published on 5 Oct 2011 Sections

Can we save our cultural heritage from crumbling?

From the Taj Mahal to Coventry Cathedral – the World Monuments Fund announces its 2012 global list of threatened cultural heritage sites. But will it change anything? Channel 4 News takes a look.

Can we save our culture heritage from crumbling? (Getty)

The World Monuments Fund (WMF) has published its latest list of cultural sites that are at risk around the globe. There are 67 sites on the WMF’s 2012 Watch list, spanning 41 countries and territories.

They include the ancient Nasca lines and geoglyphs in Peru, the palace and garden of China’s Nanyue Kingdom, and the first cemetery of Athens in Greece – as well as Coventry Cathedral and the modernist South Bank Centre in London.

Under the tag “British Brutalism” Preston Bus Station and Birmingham Central Library – both set for demolition as part of redevelopment plans – also make the list. Click here for the full document.

Because of the cuts, the prospects for buildings at risk have got substantially worse. Philip Benning, Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings

WMF President Bonnie Burnham said the list was a “call to action” on behalf of “endangered cultural heritage sites” everywhere.

She said the list “reminds us of our collective role as stewards of the earth and of its human heritage”, and hailed a $5m grant from American Express in support of the organisation.

That’s all well and good – but there is a problem.

Taj Mahal – 15 years at risk

The Taj Mahal, one of the most famous heritage sites in the world, has been on the biennial list ever since it began, in 1996. But reports today suggest the situation there is only getting worse.

Dr Jonathan Foyle, chief executive of the World Monuments Fund in Britain, told Channel 4 News: “Dangers from pollution, tourism and water supply have meant that the Taj Mahal was even then considered a monument in peril.”

Since then, a site survey has been carried out with WMF funds and expertise. But in 2009, cracks appeared in the building – and some are warning it could collapse completely in the next five years unless action is taken.

Coventry Cathedral is on the 2012 World Monument Fund watchlist (WMF)

But Dr Foyle said more investigation was necessary.

“The recent cracks need more investigation as the footings, claimed to be dried out and the cause of the mausoleum’s settlement, have apparently not been seen for 30 years. So this needs careful analysis and not, as often happens with historical measures, a knee-jerk response which can lead to the wrong action, and a worsened condition.”

So does the watch list make any difference? Yes, argues Philip Benning, secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

“It’s definitely valuable. The main value is making people think ok, this is an important building, it is at risk, how can we save it?” he told Channel 4 News.

“It’s primarily an awareness thing – and an embarrassment thing. In most cases people will already know there is a problem but it can focus attention.”

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Austerity warning

However Mr Benning told Channel 4 News that, while the list and the work of societies and organisations like his own and the WMF could help, ancient buildings, monuments and cultural sites face very tough times.

While in other areas across the globe, sites can be at risk for political, systemic or financial reasons, in theory the UK has a very good system, Mr Benning said, involving local councils, charities, and National Lottery funding – which has funnelled around £4bn to heritage since its inception.

The list is an awareness thing – and an embarrassment thing. It can focus attention. Philip Benning

The coalition government has increased National Lottery funding since being elected, but to the backdrop of the wider “age of austerity”, this is not enough, Mr Benning warned – particularly because lottery funding has to be matched by public money.

“Because of the cuts that are going on, the prospects for buildings at risk have got substantially worse – because of the economic situation and because local authorities are laying off conservation officers, so there is no-one to fix the problem,” he said.

“It’s not a great time. The economy will pick up – and we don’t want to see buildings that are hundreds of years old be lost in five years just because the times are bad.

“The tragedy is that it’s when buildings are not maintained that they go rapidly downhill. We just hope owners can be persuaded to spend enough to at least keep the buildings watertight during the tough times.”