Tuesday, 22 March 2011

World Heritage – not coming to Lincoln anytime soon…

Any faint hopes Lincoln may have entertained of gaining a place on the top table of world heritage were dealt a death blow today when DCMS announced the shortlist of UK sites to go forward to the UNESCO panel – minus our fair city.

In case you missed the earlier story, a long list of 38 sites was produced back in July 2010, each expressing an interest in being granted World Heritage status.  The list was varied and included historic towns, prehistoric caves and industrial heritage.

The applications for each applicant were published online by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.  Lincoln’s application can be viewed here.

I have to confess I felt a vague sense of disappointment when I first read that application.  It just didn't seem to sell the city in particularly glowing terms and failed to present Lincoln as an integrated cultural offer - where was the talk of the Roman monuments, charming cobbled streets, varied museums and important historic buildings?  York’s application in comparison wove a tale of the history of the city – stories of Viking Kings and Roman Emperors being told through dynamic modern partnerships with unity of vision.  We may not have as much of that in Lincoln, but we do have fantastic stories to tell, and the big problem for me was that the application was focused rather superficially on the castle and cathedral, as if they exist in a bubble rather than as part of a fascinating and complex historical palimpsest.

However, as it turns out, York’s brand of lyrical wax was just as unwanted as Lincoln’s, as neither city made it onto the shortlist.  The final list consists of:

Chatham Dockyard and its Defences, Kent, England
Creswell Crags, Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire, England
England’s Lake District, Cumbria
Gorham’s Cave Complex, Gibraltar
The Island of St Helena, South Atlantic Ocean
Jodrell Bank Observatory, Cheshire, England
Mousa, Old Scatness & Jarlshof, Shetland, Scotland
Slate Industry of North Wales
The Flow Country, Scotland
The Forth Bridge (Rail), Scotland
Turks & Caicos Islands, West Indies

I find this selection rather surprising, as 'traditional heritage' such as historic towns and cities seem to not be the flavour of the month at all.  I’m sure that every place on the list is important in its own right, but is the Forth Bridge really a more important place in the history of the world than York?

One reason that I find this list strange is with regards to the potential these sites have to attract tourists.  Now, I’m the last person to suggest that tourism should take precedence over criteria such as historic importance, rarity and the like, but in the world we live in it is a reality we have to embrace.  Many international tourists will look at lists such as World Heritage when planning where to travel (I know from personal experience that lots of Chinese tourists do this).  I’m certain that pretty, historic towns like Lincoln and York would attract more tourists than some of the sites on this list (no disrespect to those sites intended).  Be honest, if you were going on a holiday yourself this summer, which of these would you deliberately go to?  The Lake District – very possibly.  Chatham Dockyard – I’m not so sure.

However, it shouldn’t all be doom and gloom, and I don’t want to sound bitter.  We should all remember that we already have one UNESCO listed attraction in Lincoln – Magna Carta, which is on the Memory of the World register

So let’s at least wish the best of luck to the 11 surviving sites with the next stage of their bids, and hope that Lincoln will at some point get the wider recognition that its deep and fascinating history deserves.

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