UNESCO’s Astronomy and World Heritage Initiative (AWHI)
Recognizing that there were few properties related to science on the World Heritage List, and that the scientific value of cultural properties related to astronomy was not always recognized, UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, in close collaboration with the State Parties and ICOMOS, created a thematic initiative on Astronomy and World Heritage in 2004. Its main objective was “to establish a link between science and culture on the basis of research aimed at acknowledging the cultural and scientific values of properties connected with astronomy”. Since astronomical heritage represents scientific heritage in its cultural context, this portal serves to implement and develop one of the main objectives of the Astronomy and World Heritage Initiative.
The Astronomy and World Heritage Initiative (AWHI) provided, and continues to provide, an opportunity to identify properties related to astronomy located around the world, to preserve their memory and save them from progressive deterioration.
Support was sought throughout from the international community in order to maintain the AWHI, and on 30 October 2008, UNESCO signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the International Astronomical Union, as a result of which the IAU has become integrally involved in the process of advancing the initiative, starting in the International Year of Astronomy 2009 and continuing to date. The MoU was renewed on 30 April 2013 for a further three-year period. To download a PDF copy of the 2013 MoU click here.
In order to fulfil its obligations under the MoU, the IAU set up a Working Group on Astronomy and World Heritage under the Chairmanship of Professor Clive Ruggles. Working with ICOMOS, this group produced the first Thematic Study on the Heritage Sites of Astronomy in 2010, and helped to create this portal, launched publicly at the IAU’s 28th General Assembly in Beijing, China, on 24 Aug 2012. Also at that General Assembly, the IAU commenced a major restructuring process, including the creation of a new Division on Education, Outreach and Heritage (one of nine IAU Divisions), which reflects the high level of importance given to heritage activities within the IAU. The Working Group subsequently became IAU Commission C4 on World Heritage and Astronomy.
The AWHI’s main milestones
UNESCO’s Astronomy and World Heritage Initiative commenced in 2004 following a decision reached by the World Heritage Committee at its 28th session (28 COM 9). It reflected a recognition that astronomical heritage was underrepresented both on the World Heritage List itself and in the Tentative Lists of the various State Parties to the Convention. It also followed an expert meeting on ‘World Heritage and Monuments of Astronomy’ held in Venice on 17–19 March 2004, organised by the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science in Europe (ROSTE) with the support of several State Parties.
The 29th session of the World Heritage Committee (July 2005) confirmed its interest and involvement in this thematic initiative particularly “as a means to promote … nominations which recognize and celebrate achievements in science”.
At the outset, the Astronomy and World Heritage Initiative proposed the following types of cultural property associated with astronomical heritage:
- properties which by their concept and/or the environmental situation have significance in relation to celestial objects or events;
- representations of the sky and/or celestial objects or events;
- observatories and instruments; and
- properties with an important link to the history of astronomy.
The initiative benefited initially from the creation of a database of sites and properties connected with astronomy, supported financially by the Royal Astronomical Society (United Kingdom) and hosted on the website of the World Heritage Centre.
In January 2008, the Inter-Union Commission on the History of Astronomy (ICHA)—a joint Commission of the IAU and the Division for the History of Science and Technology (DHST) of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science (IUHPS)— produced its own preliminary list of important ancient and historical cultural properties relating to astronomy.
In October 2008, UNESCO and the IAU signed a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) committing them to work together to implement and progress the Astronomy and World Heritage Initiative. This provided a strong and secure framework for further progress. Shortly afterwards, the IAU created a Working Group on Astronomy and World Heritage in order to discharge its responsibilities under the Memorandum.
The decision by both UNESCO and the IAU to proclaim 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy served to raise the public profile of the initiative.
Since 2009 the IAU’s Working Group on Astronomy and World Heritage, subsequently its Commission C4 on World Heritage and Astronomy, has worked closely with UNESCO and ICOMOS to develop the initiative. The main deliverables to date have been the two ICOMOS-IAU Thematic Studies on the Heritage Sites of Astronomy (2010, 2017) and the establishment of this web portal.
At its 36th Session in St. Petersburg, Russia, in July 2012, the World Heritage Committee encouraged cooperation between the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, specialized agencies and relevant interdisciplinary scientific initiatives, with the ultimate aim of producing a Global Thematic Study on the Heritage of Science and Technology.
On 30 October 2013 the MoU between UNESCO and the IAU was renewed for a further three-year period.
At its 38th session in Doha, Qatar, in July 2014, the World Heritage Committee examined the Astronomy and World Heritage Initiative (see document WHC-14/38.COM/5E, §§ 73 – 76, page 13). The Committee noted the results achieved in the implementation of the Initiative as well as the lack of extra-budgetary funding. It also noted that the World Heritage Centre will continue basic coordination with its strategic partners, communicate the results achieved by the Advisory Bodies and other partners, and will provide advice to States Parties as requested. It also encouraged stakeholders to ensure the follow-up of the Initiative and continue supporting research and other activities to assist States Parties in identifying and protecting relevant sites.
Various meetings have served to implement, progress, and publicise the Initiative. These include:
- a regional round table related to the Astronomy and World Heritage Initiative organised by the Institute of Astronomy of the Russian Academy of Sciences in May–June 2005;
- an international conference on ‘Astronomy and Heritage’ organised by the European Society for Astronomy in Culture in Sardinia, Italy, in June-July 2005;
- an international symposium on ‘Cultural Heritage: Astronomical Observatories (around 1900) from Classical Astronomy to Modern Astrophysics’, organized by ICOMOS Germany in Hamburg, October 2008;
- an international conference on ‘Astronomy and World Heritage: Across Time and Continents’, organized by the Russian National Commission for UNESCO, held in Kazan, Russian Federation, in August 2009;
- an international seminar on ‘Astronomy and World Heritage: Across Ages and Continents’, organized by the Egyptian National Commission for UNESCO, held in Cairo, Egypt, in February 2010;
- an international seminar on ‘Protection of the Heritage of Astronomy’, organized by the French National Commission for UNESCO, held in Paris, France, in September 2011;
- a workshop to discuss and review the ICOMOS–IAU Extended Case Studies, held in Tekapo, New Zealand, in June 2012;
- a side-event on ‘The Astronomy and World Heritage Initiative: Achievements and Issues’ at the 2015 World Heritage Committee meeting (39 COM) in Bonn, Germany, in July 2015;
- a Focus Meeting on Astronomical Heritage: Progressing the UNESCO–IAU Initiative, held at the IAU General Assembly in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, in August 2015; and
- an international meeting on Hawaiian, Oceanic and Global Cultural Astronomy: Tangible and Intangible Heritage, held in Hilo, Hawai‘i, also in August 2015.
The contents of this page were originally based upon text in the ICOMOS–IAU Thematic Study. Original text © Clive Ruggles, Michel Cotte and the contributing authors.