Bonnie Burnham, President of the World Monuments Fund (WMF), the leading independent organization dedicated to saving the world’s most treasured places, talks to Christine Kuan about the history and future projects of WMF. The Artstor Digital Library recently launched WMF’s images of architecture, sites, and monuments from around the world.

Jaisalmer Fort; Exterior, India. | Photographer: Mark Weber. | World Monuments Fund

CK: What is the mission of WMF?

BB: World Monuments Fund works globally to ensure that heritage sites of worldwide significance are preserved, protected, and play a meaningful role in the local and global community today.

CK: How many countries has WMF worked within since its founding in 1965?

BB: In our more than 45 years of serving the field of heritage conservation, WMF has conducted and supported field projects in more than 100 countries, at nearly 600 sites.

CK: What are the challenges of preserving world monuments in the 21st century?

BB: Heritage sites face a range of threats, which have to do with changing ways of life, values, and the impact of a changing environment. Everything from the past cannot be saved as the world continues to reshape itself. In spite of their best efforts, governments cannot protect every site that is confronted with potential loss. Communities rally around the monuments that are most meaningful for them to save, but often they do not have the vision, the resources or the momentum to achieve their goals. This is where an international organization, the voice of an international concerned citizenry can help. The biggest challenge for the preservation field today is to preserve not only buildings themselves, but a meaningful context that will allow them to continue to play vital roles within the community where they exist.

CK: What is the most complex project you’ve worked on during your tenure at WMF?

BB: Sometimes projects are complicated from a technical perspective and sometimes they involve bringing together a diverse political consensus. It is the latter situation that is more complex. After the end of the Soviet period, WMF began to work extensively in eastern and central Europe. Many great heritage sites had been neglected for ideological reasons, especially sacred places and estates associated with the aristocracy. There was no prioritization or sense of how and where to start. Local authorities had no experience with how to make a monument economically self-sufficient. In the communist system the state had owned and paid for everything. Powerful officials made all the decisions. Our process of forging consensus about what to do and how to make it happen was a new idea to our counterparts in the former soviet bloc. It was a very exciting but often frustrating and complicated process. We never knew where we stood, and whether at the end of the day someone could stand in the way of all we were trying to achieve, simply because they had the power to do so. Working in postwar Iraq there is a similar feeling of uncertainty about whether the good alliances we have formed with our local counterparts will stand the test of time, as the government is still rapidly changing and evolving. Until things settle down and normalize politically, it will be difficult for people in the cultural sector to achieve lasting results that the society can embrace.

CK: How has Internet impacted the work of WMF?

Maya Sites of the Yucatan Peninsula, Yucatán, Mexico, ca. 600-900. Photographer: Bonnie Burnham. World Monuments Fund.

BB: The Internet has had a wonderful impact on our work in making it more widely accessible in ways we could not have imagined or planned for. When our World Monuments Watch list is announced every two years, the information reaches millions of people around the world in a matter of minutes. We get extraordinary responses from people everywhere who are moved by the places we are trying to defend. We can get a feeling for the local events they are organizing – a vigil, a rally, or a hearing. The connections are immediate.

Another way the Internet helps us is as a virtual environment for presenting the places we are trying to preserve, giving many people an opportunity to experience a real sense of place. With the development of other forms of new technology, such as laser scanning, we are now able to recreate monuments that are far away, inaccessible, or even lost, for a worldwide audience. This is a powerful new form of education.

CK: Part of WMF’s mission is education and training, what are some of the most critical education programs sponsored by WMF?

BB: We support many hands-on training programs at sites where we work. It is wonderful to see our trainees become personally involved with and committed to saving places that they might have been indifferent to prior to this opportunity, simply because they had not been able to see what we valued in those places. It’s very inspiring when a young person with no educational preparation comes to share and embody the values that inspire your own work. But my favorite educational program is one that WMF helped to establish at the Williamsburg High School for Architecture and Design in Brooklyn, NY. The curriculum at this school draws completely upon learning directly from experiences in the built environment surrounding the school and in the community. Every academic course curriculum at every grade is interwoven with experiential knowledge from local landmarks – whether it’s English, math, science or history. The students learn from the monuments around them. I believe it is a very good way to learn, and the academic success of the students in the school has borne that out. Sometimes their lives are transformed by this opportunity. I wish I had had a similar experience when I was growing up.

CK: Has digital photography been useful to the work of WMF?

BB: Digital photography has and will continue to transform our ability to understand places. So much can be done to work with these images, integrate them together, transmit them around the world, and keep them permanently as a record of a given place at a given time, that digital images have almost outdated traditional photographic means. Traditional photography has become as a consequence more of an art form, a way of recording a moment or a sensation or a sense of place. All that is wonderful and legitimate, but perhaps the two have different purposes and different uses today.

CK: You studied at the University of Florida and l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne and devoted your career to cultural heritage preservation. Are there notable different cultural approaches to the preservation of world monuments?

BB: Nothing in my academic training prepared me for my career in heritage conservation, unless it was the opportunity of international study, where I learned very quickly that there are completely different cultural perspectives and approaches to education itself. I continue to be educated by every new project, country, and cultural environment in which we work. There are indeed different ways of thinking about monuments, different aesthetic and ethical approaches to preservation, and different ways in which communities and authorities locally express their respect for these sites.

Preah Khan; Exterior, ca. 12th c. Siem Reap Province, Cambodia. Photographer: John Stubbs/World Monuments Fund

CK: Is there any site/monument that you’ve always wanted to work on but never had the chance?

BB: Yes. The Taj Mahal. We were able to do a little work there, but not enough to help transform the run-down area around the monument and improve the overall experience of visiting the Taj, which would have been our long-term goal.

CK: What is one of the most endangered sites/monuments now that everyone should be aware of?

BB: The most endangered monuments today may be those that are most appreciated by the public. It is very rare for a good system to be in place to help preserve and protect monuments in relation to their own public. That public, especially in the form of tourists, can completely change the nature of the place, without meaning or wanting to do so, just by their very presence. The most endangered monument that is being lost, probably irretrievably, today is Venice. This is because of a range of factors working together to produce a net loss, which is getting worse as the years go on. The environmental impact of rising water is ominous. The demographic changes of the city, with the Venetians leaving or being forced out because of rising property values, the unregulated numbers of tourists and the insensitive commercial decisions – from allowing oversized tour boats in the canals to selling huge space for advertising panels on key monuments – have degraded its sense of place, and it is steadily losing its appeal as a living community. The political powers of the city, and its citizenry, do not seem to have the will to save historic Venice as a vital city.