The birth of the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) predates its inception. The industry of heritage conservation preceded ICOMOS even though it is a relatively modern field of work. Countries in different parts of the world have evolved practices of conserving built heritage and protecting intangible cultural heritage. However, it never surpassed the bounds of national territory until ICOMOS. 

An overview of ICOMOS - Sheet1
Home page of ICOMOS_©ICOMOS

ICOMOS was established during the second congress of architects, conservationists and technologists of historic monuments in Venice in May 1964 (ICOMOS, 1995). The idea of constructing a non-government organisation for the express cause of protecting monuments was previously conceived by UNESCO based on the ICOM organization. In 1961, ICCROM (Internation Center for Conservation and Restoration of Monuments) ratified the desire to create ICOMOS by issuing a declaration. ICOMOS stems from the intention for international reach in protecting and conserving built heritage. This notion of solidarity and integration was influenced by UNESCO, a key player in its formation (ICOMOS, 1995). 

After WW1, the League of Nations were formed and the Second World War resulted in the creation of the United Nations to propagate and maintain peace (Bellet, n.d.). 

ICOMOS, to summarise, was a result of a changing world that was increasingly moving towards cultural internationalism and world-building (Bellet, n.d.). It also represents a period in history that broke away from the 19th century and its ideologies. Yet, it is noteworthy that this concept was most popular in Europe and the western world, even though other nations were also involved.

Chartered to Function

The Athen’s conference on the restoration of historic buildings in 1931 resulted in the publication of the Athens charter, drafted by Le Corbusier. The Venice charter was born as a result of one of the 13 resolutions proposed at the second conference. Another resolution was put forth by UNESCO, which provided for the formation of ICOMOS (ICOMOS, n.d.).

Since its inception, ICOMOS has been a key part of publishing, curating and contributing to various charters like the NARA document, Burra charter and so on. It has also released several other documents regarding conservation practices and their specifics. Apart from such functions, ICOMOS mainly serves as a support organisation for UNESCO. This involves lending expertise in critically analysing, studying and providing recommendations for the sites and buildings listed by UNESCO. Additionally, it also acts as an advising body to states that call for its advice (ICOMOS, n.d.). ICOMOS now has local offices set up in various countries. It started with 25 National committees in 1965 (ICOMOS, 1995) and is presently at 107 national committees. ICOMOS has the invaluable function of acting as a conduit to UNESCO and the member nations (ICOMOS, n.d.).

While the first charter was produced in Venice, over the years various others were produced in different cities all over the world from Quebec to Zimbabwe to Rome. These documents also range from underwater structures to vernacular architecture to structural restorations. These are the results of doctrinal research aimed at setting a benchmark for ethics of ethical practice (ICOMOS, n.d.).  

An overview of ICOMOS - Sheet2
ICOMOS International Cultural Tourism Committee_©ICOMOS

Evolution of Ideas

Buildings listed by UNESCO constantly expand into various territories like industrial heritage (a 19th Century built landscape), military heritage and rural landscapes. Each of these typologies of buildings based on age, era and construction techniques requires a customisable, sensitive approach to conserving, restoring and or re-using them. ICOMOS addresses these predicaments with various charters, resolutions and national committee documents. In the declaration of Dresden on ‘Reconstruction of monuments destroyed by war’, one of the resolution documents recommends that monuments with a history of war are to be conserved in such a way that all the elements of the building through different periods can be traced. Dresden is a town in Germany which was a key geographical participant and target in the 19th and 20th centuries and the first and second world wars.

An overview of ICOMOS - Sheet3
The Ruins of Dresden in 1945_©wikipedia

This shows the lengths and breadths of the discussions that could be had to change the ways institutions and organisations approach built heritage with a sensitive history. Another example that could be pointed out is the Delhi Declaration on Heritage and Democracy. Heritage is considered an integral part of inclusive and integrated sustainable development (ICOMOS, n.d.). Organizing conferences and inviting experts to speak on such topics demonstrates how informed, sensitive and empathic arguments can be incorporated into technical decision-making.

A much-needed topic that could be discussed to provide for the next declaration is how nations can treat and conserve colonial structures. Colonial structures have a complicated past that manifests differently in different places around the world based on their history and historical events. For instance, most of the functioning government buildings in India are from imperial times. Through organic development, these colonial structures are reclaimed by the government and people in India as their places of power and administration. It would be interesting to study and record how colonial structures act in other nations with similar pasts. It is also pertinent to have a conversation on this topic to understand how such structures can be dealt with in developed nations. For instance, how people perceive structures named after and built for plantation owners and slave owners. A guideline for a nuanced and sensitive approach toward these structures is a priority today. This could result in a positive impact on various groups of people. One can think of no other effective organisation to do this than ICOMOS.

Future of our Pasts – Climate Action Panel_©ICOMOS

Apart from the publications, ICOMOS also has various working groups, like the emerging professionals’ group, international scientific committees, regional groups and national committees. People who are interested and willing to contribute need to become a member of their respective regional or national committees to become a part of these working groups. ICOMOS welcomes enthusiasts every year with membership categories ranging from student to honourable mentions. Access to resources and free or subsidised tickets to monuments benefit members. Most members also get to vote for the committee leaders (ICOMOS, n.d.). In the interest of the integration of the world and its culture, anyone should be a part of this organisation.

References

Bellet, B., n.d. History [WWW Document]. International Council on Monuments and Sites. URL https://www.icomos.org/en/about-icomos/mission-and-vision/history (accessed 8.29.22a).

Bellet, B., n.d. Charters and other doctrinal texts [WWW Document]. International Council on Monuments and Sites. URL https://www.icomos.org/en/resources/charters-and-texts (accessed 9.1.22b).

Declaration of Dresden on the “Reconstruction of Monuments Destroyed by War” (1982)  [WWW Document], n.d. . International Council on Monuments and Sites. URL https://www.icomos.org/en/resources/charters-and-texts/179-articles-en-francais/ressources/charters-and-standards/184-the-declaration-of-dresden (accessed 9.1.22).

ICOMOS, 1995. SJ Thirty Years of ICOMOS / 30ème anniversaire de l’ICOMOS [WWW Document]. International Council on Monuments and Sites. URL https://www.icomos.org/en/resources/publicationall/icomos-bookshop/116-english-categories/resources/publications/309-sj-thirty-years-of-icomos (accessed 8.29.22).

Author

Bhairav is an aspiring conservation architect who loves to write about the social aspects of architecture, urbanism, and heritage. She earned a B.Arch in 2018 from Anna University in Chennai and an MSc in Architectural Conservation in 2020 from the University of Strathclyde in the UK.

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