Twenty years ago, UNESCO designated much of the East End to have ‘Outstanding Universal Value’. What does this status mean for Bermuda today – and tomorrow?
Our collective sense of humanity has fundamentally expanded during 2020. This year marks the 20th anniversary of another global connection, the inscription of the “Historic Town of St. George and Related Fortifications, Bermuda” as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
St. George’s is Bermuda’s only World Heritage Site, so far. The town and its forts bring Bermuda our most distinguished heritage designation and an internationally renowned brand. St. George’s stands shoulder to shoulder on the World Heritage List with the world’s great heritage places and cultural tourism destinations. The East End’s historic sites and settings are infused with 400-plus years of local life connected to a wider world. Today’s complex and changing relationships with the past and other heritage experiences make our World Heritage Site relevant to everyone in Bermuda and to many beyond our shores.
Here, we celebrate what makes St. George’s significant to all of humanity, put a spotlight on our obligations for sustaining its Outstanding Universal Value, and imagine the potential of Bermuda World Heritage to benefit our community.
A Precious Place
In 2000, in response to Bermuda’s application, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated much of Bermuda’s East End to have Outstanding Universal Value. Like all World Heritage Sites, UNESCO declared St. George’s to “belong to all peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.”
UNESCO adopted the World Heritage Convention nearly 50 years ago and today there are 1100-plus cultural and/or natural World Heritage Sites. St. George’s is one of 32 UK World Heritage Sites and one of four in British Overseas Territories, all of them islands. The other cultural site is Gibraltar, while Gough and Inaccessible Islands along with Henderson Island are natural inscriptions. Eleven other UK sites are seeking inscription, including the Turks and Caicos Islands tied to Bermuda’s salt trading and the island of St. Helena where Boer War prisoners were likewise held. Inscription remains a distinct honour that is more and more difficult to attain.
Our precious international accolade means only as much as we use it to benefit Bermuda in measurable and meaningful ways. UNESCO’s founding goals of peace, security and sustainable development were born out of the Second World War and continue to guide the World Heritage programme. If the primary benefit of UNESCO status is its value to its host community, then we must continue to pursue how World Heritage can best benefit the East End and wider Bermuda. So, let’s take a deeper dive into the cultural, social and economic value that World Heritage can generate.
Cultural value derives in part from aiming to meet the standards of UNESCO and its advisors so as to best manage our irreplaceable heritage resources. This helps protect our surviving buildings, fortifications, monuments, archaeology and artefacts. It also helps to safeguard known histories, fragile memories and silent stories. Bermuda World Heritage is living tangible and intangible heritage and its management should set the standard for Bermuda.
Social value grows by addressing community needs and priorities. It may advance the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, with good health and well-being, quality education, reduced inequalities, and sustainable cities and communities being the UN goals most relevant to Bermuda. Heritage, treated as a process of identity and community formation, is indeed a change maker for our most pressing social issues.
Economic value focuses on financial return, whether it be via direct revenue, cost savings, or monetised cultural or social value—how we might turn a nice dollar out of heritage. Bermuda World Heritage has more scope to enhance cultural tourism, as a key aspect of the National Tourism Plan and a deep and dynamic part of Bermudian identity. The ongoing revitalisation of the East End much depends on cultural tourism that works for the residents and businesses there, as well as for the island’s overall economy.
The flip side of understanding the overall value of World Heritage is grasping what could be at risk should Bermuda ever lose its UNESCO status. The path to losing status is being placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, which today accounts for almost five percent of World Heritage Sites. The threat of delisting fires us up to best manage the inscribed site and its adjacent buffer zone. But it is by no means the only motivation, with so much to gain from our World Heritage Site.
Our Outstanding Universal Value
UNESCO classifies the Historic Town of St. George with its related fortifications as an “outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates significant stages in human history.” Founded in 1612, it is a “continuously occupied, fortified, colonial town dating from the early 17th century, and the oldest English town in the New World. Its associated fortifications graphically illustrate the development of English military engineering from the 17th to the 20th century, being adapted to take account of the development of artillery over this period.”
Keeping on Track
Being a World Heritage Site is not simply about sitting on a special list. Rather, it means constantly meeting obligations to safeguard a Site’s unique Outstanding Universal Value from harmful impacts. Threats to the town and forts of St. George’s could include neglect of historic buildings and monuments, development impacting the site or its setting, destruction of archaeological context and artefacts, or poor preparation for the impacts of climate change, visitor experiences and other modern uses of St. George’s as a continuously inhabited heritage site and tourism experience.
UNESCO consequently requires management plans for all World Heritage Sites. The Bermuda World Heritage Site management plan keeps us on track with UNESCO requirements and our aligned objectives. A recent comprehensive review of the management plan led by the Government of Bermuda involved close collaboration by key partners and initiated public consultation for ongoing community engagement.
Bermuda World Heritage has a cluster of government, quango and non-profit partners. Such a cooperative unites capacity and resources and generates ideas and debate—really a trailblazing model in the local cultural and non-profit sectors. Bermuda World Heritage has relied on collaboration since well before a visionary team put our UNESCO application together. To be sure, all the organisations and individuals involved over the past 20 years and everything they have contributed is forever part of our World Heritage story.
World Heritage also connects Bermuda to international friends and funding. Neither UNESCO nor the UK Government provide sustained funding, unfortunately. However, World Heritage status gives Bermuda access to international grants and other support that might otherwise be unavailable. Bermuda is also an active member of World Heritage UK, an independent body advocating for UK World Heritage Sites on behalf of a professional network brimming with expertise and camaraderie. As World Heritage UK’s recent review of all UK World Heritage Sites shows, St. George’s is by no means alone in our never-ending but noble quest to protect our Outstanding Universal Value.
Attributes Worth Protecting
Attributes distilling the value of the Bermuda World Heritage Site were recently defined for the first time, and will continue to be revised, so as to clearly set out and continuously update what the management plan is seeking to protect. Three headline attributes were defined as: the intact and continuously occupied town with its historic townscape, vernacular architecture and living community; the related fortifications and military heritage including the forts themselves, their artillery and historic garrison community; and the maritime heritage in terms of Atlantic influence, marine environment and living maritime traditions. All three attributes of town, forts and sea include archaeology and other research resources that continuously reveal our shared history and stimulate community uses of heritage.
A tremendous amount has been achieved over the past 20 years by Bermuda World Heritage partners. The gains made span gaining UNESCO status itself and robust planning protections, to rigorous research and restoration, to inroads in interpretation, to enhanced education programmes and economic development, to monitoring the management plan.
Like the archaeological landscape of the town and forts, a great deal has been explored and yet there is so much more to discover and do. In 20 years of intensive work by local and overseas partners, we have barely scratched the surface of the history to uncover and hardly imagined the infinite expanse of other heritage uses. Despite most everyone in Bermuda having some personal connection to St. George’s, and the East End’s many immersed residents and stalwart champions, we have yet to meaningfully engage the larger part of the community with our World Heritage.
World Heritage must also be concerned with wider community issues. In the 2020 context of a global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, heritage norms are rightly being challenged. Cultural sectors may be fighting for survival but so are the homeless, working people, and businesses of St. George’s and further west. We are only just starting to confront Bermuda’s painful past and its ongoing legacies of inequity in more active and thoughtful ways. Yet, time is precious for many, especially the young, incarcerated and vulnerable—some living within the boundaries of the World Heritage Site—seeking to build authentic identities, relevant skills and life opportunities for themselves.
More than ever, we need community engagement that goes beyond token gestures and asks people what they actually need. We must tell more of the World Heritage story, and ensure different voices are telling it. We have not only an opportunity but a responsibility to involve more of Bermuda in managing and imagining our World Heritage. Doing so will do much to maintain our UNESCO status, elevate the East End and benefit all of Bermuda.
As our understandings of heritage evolve, we realise its management is more than a checklist. It’s not just what we do, but how we use the process of managing a UNESCO Site to explore meaningful concepts and deliver measurable outcomes. With the constant evolution of best practice in World Heritage management and the wider heritage field, there’s plenty of international inspiration out there. But we needn’t look further than our own community and our only World Heritage Site to find answers.