Head of Arts and Cultures assigned top UNESCO role

Newcastle University has been invited by UNESCO to establish the inaugural Chair in Cultural Property Protection and Peace. The Chair will see the University leading the training and development of new links and partnerships worldwide to help prevent the destruction of cultural property during conflict.

Professor Peter Stone, Head of the School of Arts and Cultures, will be appointed as Chairholder in January. As part of his work as UNESCO Chairholder, Professor Stone will work with governments and militaries internationally, as well as the heritage sector and the public in order to “foster a better understanding of the value of cultural property.”

Professor Stone has stressed that while conflict requires cultural property protection environmental disasters are also an ongoing problem. The Church of the Nativity, the traditional location above the cave that marks the birthplace of Jesus, is under threat from water leaks, and the Minaret of Jam in Afghanistan is under the continued perils of erosion, water infiltration, floods and earthquakes, such as the disaster that hit the Hindu Kush last week. The Chair’s work will continue the successes of projects such as that at the Kyomizu Dera Temple of Kyoto in Japan, which has promoted the transfer of traditional knowledge of complex conservation procedures to protect the site.

He also made the point that conflict takes not only a tragic loss of human life, but also “robs the world of its past” through the destruction and sale of historical artefacts. Cultural destruction disrupts the physical wellbeing and economic potential of affected communities.

The post has been created in the face of “an almost unprecedented urgency to mitigate the destruction of cultural property,” Professor Stone said. Of the 1031 UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the world, forty-eight are currently considered to be in danger. Sites at risk are not only in the Middle East and Africa – Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City is currently considered to be at risk owing to the proposed Liverpool Waters Project to renovate the docks of the World Heritage Site into a new waterfront quarter. All projects, regardless of location, are covered by the new Chair, Professor Stone.

The role of the UNESCO Chair is very relevant to peace. Professor Stone noted that while “we hope conflict does not impact on Newcastle and the UK,” the work of the Chair in promoting peace could involve working with World Heritage sites across the United Kingdom, notably the Frontiers of the Roman Empire: Antonine and Hadrian’s Wall. Part of the role of the Chair is to promote the use of heritage sites to promote peace, and these sites are fundamental to achieving this.

Although it is unlikely that students will be able to get involved with the Chair’s activities this semester, as the project is still in development, it is anticipated that opportunities for interaction will increase in the New Year. For now, the establishment of the Chair will involve the development of training materials for the military. Professor Stone told The Courier that he “certainly hopes to be giving a Public Lecture, possibly in Semester 2 of this academic year.”

University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Chris Brink, was keen to stress the “world-leading expertise” that Newcastle University has to offer in cultural property protection. He stated: “With the benefit of Professor Stone’s knowledge and expert guidance, this UNESCO Chair will play a critical role in protecting the world’s cultural heritage for future generations.” Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Ed Vaizey, emphasised the need to protect cultural property as being hugely important. “I welcome Professor Stone and Newcastle University to the role of the first UNESCO Chair to protect cultural heritage at risk of destruction,” Vaizey said.

Launched in 1992, the UNESCO Chairs Programme promotes international inter-university cooperation and collaboration, combining human and material tools with the abilities of universities and research institutions. Current Chairs, in over 700 institutions in 126 countries, have forged strong links between academia, civil societies and local communities. The new Chair at Newcastle adds to this with a primary focus on cultural protection in times of conflict and environmental disaster.

Professor Stone has had extensive experience in cultural protection worldwide, working as a specialist advisor to the government over protecting heritage in Iraq, in addition to Chairing the UK Committee for the Blue Shield, an organisation that promotes the protection of cultural property against threats of all kinds.

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