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Cultural sites at risk.

Help is urgently needed to save Easter Island's Orongo stone village and Alaska's Holy Ascension Russian Orthodox Church. The same goes for the more easily overlooked public elevator system in Valparaiso, Chile, and a state prison in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - this according to the New York-based World Monuments Fund, which has just released its first annual compilation of the world's one hundred most imperiled historical sites.

Twenty-four monuments from twelve countries in the Americas are included on this year's list, assembled by eight leading architectural preservationists who made the selections from 253 nominations in seventy countries worldwide. Fund director Bonnie Burnham notes that choices were based not on a site's absolute cultural or artistic importance - an impossible assessment in any case - but rather on the likelihood of gaining fast results if public attention were to be drawn to them.

That is why a small church in the obscure west-central Peruvian town of Rapaz, adorned with flaking seventeenth-century mural scenes of whimsy from folk-inspired Christianity, shares the list with Mexico City's better-known murals by Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco. The Rapaz site is small and anonymous, nothing to compare to Rivera's earthquake-damaged work in the Secretaria de Educacion Publica, but it can be saved simply by protecting it from the rain.

Some choices are meant to sound a special distress call. For example, the Church of the Compania in Quito, Ecuador, whose entire old city center had previously been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was already undergoing repair when a fire broke out earlier this year. Its selection highlights the danger that preservation efforts themselves sometimes pose.

The committee feels that sites can be threatened by enemies small and large. Stone Age paintings in the Serra da Capivara National Park in Piaui, Brazil, are being eaten by insects, while the shell mound settlements built by the seven-thousand-year-old Warao culture on the Guyanese coast are under assault by bulldozers clearing the rain forest.

The Fund's idea of cultural value is clearly as much historical as it is artistic. The Morgan Lewis wind-powered sugar mill in St. Andrew, Barbados, the last of its kind in the Caribbean, illuminates what was once the slave-based plantation economy and social structure of the entire region. Similarly, the mid-seventeenth-century Jewish settlement of Jodensavanna in Suriname contains the remains of the oldest brick synagogue in the Americas as well as a World War II internment camp that held Dutch Nazis (see "Reclaiming Jodensavanna," Americas, March/April 1995).

As for Valparaiso's elevators? The Fund's report calls them "the city's defining characteristic," praising them for "fostering social interaction among inhabitants" and "symbolizing the port's now lost preeminence as a maritime center." And the claim of Philadelphia's much more dubious landmark? As the place where solitary confinement was invented, it "came to symbolize a new age of social reform," and influenced "concepts of prisons throughout the world." Even a penitentiary, the report notes, can in time become a "significant cultural attraction."
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Title Annotation:World Monuments Fund's compilation of 100 world historical sites in dire need of conservation
Author:Werner, Louis
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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Next Article:An encounter in focus.

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