UNESCO rep visits Ohio, discusses World Heritage opportunities

On Wednesday, April 14, the Ohio History Connection played host to a moving conversation about the World Heritage challenges and opportunities for Ohio, as stakeholders met to discuss World Heritage during a public luncheon.

Patrick Terrien of the Columbus Council on World Affairs moderated a panel discussion including Dr. Brad Lepper, Archaeology Curator for the Ohio History Connection, and George Papagiannis, the US spokesman for UNESCO who visited Ohio last week.

The men discussed how the United States was the first signatory to the UNESCO World Heritage program in 1972 and has since gained 22 spots on the list, including Cahokia Mounds near St. Louis (1982), Yellowstone National Park (1978), and the Statue of Liberty (1984). These sites are considered to have “outstanding universal value,” which Papagiannis commented was “a very high bar.” If the three World Heritage Ohio nominations go through, Ohio may have the greatest number of World Heritage Sites of any state in the country.

Most of the conversation was about the most prominent World Heritage Ohio nomination: the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks. Papagiannis said when he toured them during 2014, he considered them transcendental and said he had a “Wow!” moment.

“These people weren’t satisfied by the treetops,” he said, speaking of the scale and cosmological accuracy of the geometry of the sites. “They wanted to see the stars. No matter who you are, these sites can speak to us today about where we come from and where we are going.”

“These sites are evidence of the monumental connection these people were making between themselves and the cosmos,” Lepper added. “They’re comparable to any major architectural site in any culture in the ancient world.”

Papagiannis and Lepper discussed the process for World Heritage nominations, explaining that the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks are currently on the U.S. Tentative List, which is managed internally by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The U.S. government presents one nomination each year to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, who then reviews the nomination and votes on it.

“At this point, it’s not a question of if but when,” Lepper commented of the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks’ nomination.

In response to an audience question about how to get Ohioans invested in this nomination, Papagiannis reflected on his own childhood in Greece, telling about how he would climb on the ancient ruins to chase lizards. For him, that was his connection to the history and the buildings.

“Go make these sites your sites!” he encouraged, suggesting people go for picnics or play Frisbee at Fort Ancient, for example.

The conversation then turned to ISIS and the destruction and looting of artifacts in the Middle East. Papagiannis called for everyone around the world to take action against these attacks, as they are violence against our combined cultural heritage and history.

“It’s like ripping our souls out of our chests,” he said, “and it’s a war crime perpetrated on people and their cultural heritage. We need these sites – these waypoints of history – to understand where we are and where we’re going.”

UNESCO is doing its best to protect these sites, he explained, focusing on the problem of looting. ISIS gains a significant part of its income by selling off ancient artifacts looted from historic sites, and preventing the sale of those artifacts will discourage looting.

However, Papagiannis continued, UNESCO is working on a smaller budget than it used to, because the U.S. withdrew its dues – a significant portion of UNESCO’s budget – several years ago as a result of a law about recognition of Palestine. That withdrawal did nothing to hurt Palestine, as the law had been written to do, but has instead harmed both the U.S. and UNESCO. The U.S. lost its voting rights at UNESCO in 2013, which jeopardizes the status of Ohio’s World Heritage nominations.

Having World Heritage sites in Ohio, Papagiannis and Lepper discussed, would be a boon to the state, as such a designation has been demonstrated to have significant effects on tourism to those sites. Cahokia, for example, experienced roughly 30,000 visitors each year before its designation, and now it experiences between 300,000 and 400,000. This creates jobs and a flowing economy in the area.

Papagiannis called for Ohioans to contact their representatives and senators to appeal for a waiver of the law regarding U.S. payment of dues. This, he said, would benefit UNESCO, the U.S., and Ohio.

Support of World Heritage Ohio can be done through this democratic channel or through financial nominations to the nomination process.

The event was also discussed on Twitter as #Unite4Heritage.

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  1. […] in the World Heritage opportunities for Ohio but weren’t able to attend the April 14 luncheon with George Papagiannis of UNESCO? You can check it out online on the Ohio History […]