The role of Visitor Centres in UNESCO Designated Sites: educating for Sustainable Development through Heritage Interpretation

From 6-8 October 2019, the city Bamberg in Germany hosted the second regional workshop on the Role of Visitor Centres in UNESCO Designated Sites in Europe, as part of a series of workshops organized by the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe to share experiences and give advice on how visitor centres do and can contribute to the management of UNESCO designated sites. The meeting  focused in particular on the contribution of such centres to Education for Sustainable Development through heritage interpretation.

Heritage interpretation and education are one of the 3 focus areas for the work of visitor centres in UNESCO designated sites that were identified during the first regional workshop, hosted by Palermo (Italy) in 2018, in addition to tourism sustainability and visitors management, and community engagement.

Despite their different institutional and operational frameworks, the various UNESCO designations – such as World Heritage, Biosphere Reserves and Global Geoparks – share the common objective to contribute to achieving the Organization’s mission towards peace and sustainable development. Accordingly, interpretation of heritage and education play a key role in UNESCO designated sites, which in turn have the potential to serve as learning sites to protect and enhance cultural and natural diversity for sustainable development, and to communicate and uphold the values that UNESCO stands for.

The “presentation” of heritage is one of the core objectives of the 1972 World Heritage Convention, and part of the States Parties’ duties, along with the responsibility to set up education and information programmes in order to strengthen the overall understanding, appreciation and respect for cultural and natural heritage. The Convention’s Operational Guidelines encourage States Parties to ensure that World Heritage status is adequately marked and promoted on-site. The development of educational materials, activities and programmes is also encouraged, with the participation of schools, universities, museums and other local and national educational authorities, wherever possible. More in general, World Heritage sites are laboratories to enhance the contribution of cultural and natural heritage to sustainable development.

Biosphere Reserves of the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme, such as ‘Science for Sustainability support sites’, are required inter alia to act as sites of excellence for education and training. They should foster the harmonious integration of people and nature for sustainable development, including through promoting knowledge sharing, education, public awareness and involvement, acting as demonstration areas and learning sites.

UNESCO Global Geo-parks promote the importance and significance of protecting the Earth’s geodiversity through actively engaging with the local communities. In order to do this, Geoparks are required to enhance their visibility, stimulate geo-tourism, promote awareness of geological heritage, and adopt a sustainable approach to the development of the area.

Against this background, the Bamberg workshop offered the opportunity to share lessons learned and to discuss possibilities on how to improve heritage interpretation and education for sustainable development in Visitors Centres related to UNESCO designated sites, with a view at providing useful indication to both existing and future centres.

The 2 sessions focused on “mirroring UNESCO’s learning and teaching concepts in heritage interpretation at UNESCO Designated Sites” and “challenges and opportunities of using information and communication technologies (ICTs) in heritage interpretation”. These knowledge-sharing sessions were combined with facilitated discussions and group exercises on the new World Heritage Visitor Centre in Bamberg, Germany, as a case study.

Participants in the workshop were representatives of visitor centres related to 26 designated sites from 21 countries in Europe, selected through a call for applications. The workshop was organized by UNESCO, through its Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe. The City of Bamberg hosted the workshop, in cooperation with the Bamberg World Heritage Visitor Centre; the University of Bamberg – Competence Centre for Heritage Sciences and Technologies; the German Commission for UNESCO; and Interpret Europe as technical partner. The organisation of this series of workshops is possible thanks to the annual contribution of Italy to the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe.

The workshop final report will be published in early 2020. Workshops on this subject are planned during the next biennium, focussing respectively on the role of Visitor Centres with regard to tourism sustainability and visitors management (2020) and community engagement and community-oriented services (2021).

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