SAN FRANCISCO—Uncovering lost cities in India, preserving “earthen buildings” in China, and turning a historical site built in A.D. 400 in Peru into a viable tourist destination, were all projects made possible by the growth of an idea born in Palo Alto, Calif.
“I think it’s this tradition of innovation that characterizes not just the Valley, but California as a whole. It’s a place where people come up with new ideas,” said Dr. Vince Michael, newly promoted executive director of the Silicon Valley-based Global Heritage Fund (GHF).
GHF kicked off the new year with its decade-long executive director and founder, Jeff Morgan, being elected board vice chairman and with Michael being appointed new executive director.
“To me, GHF 2.0 is about leading with technical expertise,” Michael said.
Leading with technology is one of the two new directions in which Michael will be leading the organization, and “it’s not just technology.” According to Michael, technical expertise is working with the best and leading the way with the “smartest people in terms of how they preserve certain types of structures.”
“California is developing the latest technology and the latest techniques for saving world heritage,” Michael said.
In Rakhigarhi, India, ground-penetrating radar was used to study an underground village, and an aerial scan of Peru’s Marcahuamachuco center is scheduled for this year. GHF also developed the Global Heritage Fund Network, which includes an interactive database of heritage sites.
GHF, founded in 2002, is a nonprofit organization aimed to protect, preserve, and sustain cultural heritage sites in developing areas around the world.
“[GHF] is one of the key organizations internationally that really understands how heritage conservation works, which is a community development model that sustains not only the building or the site but the community it’s in,” Michael said.
Preservation by Design
This idea of “Preservation by Design” is GHF’s hallmark system, and one of the reasons Michael joined the organization in 2012.
Preservation by Design has four parts: planning, conservation science, community development, and partnerships. Two to three years are spent developing a master plan, a staff of experts maps out the scientific methodologies and technology, the community of the site is brought into the conversation, and then partnerships are made with organizations from the local to the international level to ensure the sustainability of the site before any preservation work begins.
Michael, who has worked with heritage conservation for 30 years, stressed the importance of having local involvement built into each project and of working with the community to find which “elements of the past they want to bring into the future.”
“We’re also going to [lead with] what I think is the cutting edge of heritage conservation global wide, and that’s ‘cultural landscapes,’” he added.
Beyond just the physical landscape, the archeological site, or a historic building, Michael’s vision includes a way to preserve traditional manners of life. The challenge is to have these traditional practices, whether agricultural or handicrafts, be viable in the modern economy.
“How do you modernize a place without losing the elements of it that are so important that people want to see it and they’ve got mass tourism?” Michael said. “And also the people that live there want to continue their own tradition.” Balancing modernization with preservation is a challenge GHF tackles with every project.
Michael is currently eyeing a project in Guizhou, China.
“[There are] minority villages—various minority groups in these scenic villages—set into these dramatic hillsides and river valleys [with] distinctive drum towers,” Michael said, describing the project, which the board is still reviewing. Nevertheless, GHF is already working with local Chinese nongovernmental organizations to help preserve the traditions in the village.
“Whether it’s papermaking or silversmithing,” Michael said, “but preserving them really—by finding new markets, figuring out ways to improve their products—to bring their products to market, but to preserve a traditional landscape.”
These target sites are not just tourism projects—in fact, tourism is often one of the threats to certain aspects of a community’s culture. According to Michael, aside from natural disasters and destruction of sites due to warfare, one of the biggest obstacles preventing “history” from becoming a part of modern society is political pressure.
“There’s pressure on political leaders to have a lot of progress in development,” Michael said. Oftentimes, “progress in development” is achieved the quickest by plowing everything down, erecting a new building, and calling it an investment, which is a quick fix, but it threatens a lot of heritage, according to Michael.
The aim of GHF is always “community-based tourism,” Michael said, and having the local people, who continue to live in their traditional “cultural landscapes,” lead the tourism. This approach creates a cycle of benefits.
“The goal is always to help poverty alleviation, bringing the community up economically, bringing it to the 21st century—but doing it with the respects of the past,” Michael said. In this way, GHF’s goals are in line with the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.
According to GHF, heritage sites in the last 10 years have generated over $1 billion for their host communities, which are often developing countries that critically need the income.
“How does one make lives better around the world? You can come in and you can give someone something—you can build a school or a house, those are helpful—but the most valuable thing is something that sustains over time,” Michael said. “Something based in the history, based in the identity of [that society].”
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