Wednesday 28 July 2021
The Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology (SPMA) was saddened to learn of Liverpool’s recent loss of UNESCO World Heritage status. As Europe’s leading professional society for the archaeology of the period after AD 1500, Liverpool has a special interest for SPMA as a port that played such an important role in the global trade networks and cultural exchanges that characterise our period, whether importing commodities such as tobacco, exporting manufactured goods such as Staffordshire ceramics, or via the challenging legacies of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Liverpool’s status as an important heritage city of international significance will not end as a result of the UNESCO decision. Nonetheless, the de-listing involves difficult issues regarding the United Kingdom’s engagement with World Heritage listing and the preservation of post-medieval heritage across Europe. Applying for UNESCO World Heritage listing is a deliberate choice on the part of national and local governments, and making that choice brings with it the acceptance of UNESCO and ICOMOS criteria for the management of those sites. This is especially true of those sites that have been listed in the 21st century, where the criteria are widely known to the parties that apply for listing. Liverpool was listed in 2004.
The Liverpool situation is not an easy one. It raises questions about whether, when it comes to post-medieval heritage, UNESCO status is better-suited to more specific sites and monuments (such as New Lanark, the Palace of Versailles, or Lisbon’s Monastery of the Hieronymites and Tower of Belém) rather than living post-medieval urban landscapes where city authorities will often be actively seeking development opportunities. Development and preservation of heritage are absolutely not mutually incompatible goals, but where World Heritage status has been actively sought and accepted, there is a duty to ensure that development is aligned with the goals of the UNESCO programme. These challenges are not unique to the United Kingdom. The decision to build the Waldschlösschen Bridge through the Dresden Elbe Valley led to the de-listing of another European post-medieval World Heritage landscape in 2009, just five years after it was listed alongside Liverpool. The decision to de-list Liverpool was therefore not unprecedented.
One lesson we do believe can be learned from the Liverpool de-listing is the importance of national governments giving strong logistical and financial support to their World Heritage sites. UNESCO prefers to operate on the basis of state engagement, not local government engagement. Yet the United Kingdom prefers to hand responsibility for the management of its World Heritage sites to often hard-pressed local authorities that are facing further financial and logistical challenges as a result of the COVID pandemic. This has the potential for significant miscommunication between the local governments managing World Heritage sites and UNESCO. SPMA strongly recommends that the UK government should take a more active role in working closely alongside local and regional governments to make sure that the latter have the legal, logistical, and financial resources necessary to ensure that site development and regeneration of the UK’s globally significant UNESCO World Heritage sites adhere closely to UNESCO requirements.
Despite the decision to de-list Liverpool, we look forward to continued collaborations with our colleagues in Merseyside working to understand their city’s rich past, including Liverpool’s internationally significant post-medieval history and heritage.
Alasdair Brooks, President
Jacqui Pearce, Vice-President