Cultural heritage: A priceless gift to the world

A Qiang couple models traditional dress in A'er, a small mountain village in China where some 500 Qiang reside. With a grant from the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, Qiang culture has been documented for future generations. (State Dept.)

Ask Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monuments Fund (WMF), about her passion for saving beautiful buildings, and she’ll tell you it started with a slide show she saw in secondary school.

A photograph of architect Andrea Palladio’s 16th-century masterpiece, the Villa Rotonda, flashed on the screen. “I had never seen such an extraordinary creation,” Burnham says.

Italy’s immaculately preserved Villa Rotonda, built in the 16th century, has served as inspiration for buildings all over the world, including the White House and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. (Wikimedia Commons/Hans A. Rosbach)

“Discovering the Villa Rotonda was the beginning of a journey for me,” she adds. She went on to lead the WMF, a New York–based organization dedicated to preserving the world’s architectural heritage of significant monuments, buildings and sites.

“Many of the iconic places and powerful traditions that have shaped our civilization are under siege,” she says. Especially in developing countries struggling with the pressures of modernization, centuries-old treasures “are crumbling and disappearing.”

In 2001, the United States launched the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) to protect and preserve historic buildings, artifacts and archaeological sites in countries where cultural treasures are threatened by environmental challenges, social and political upheaval, and lack of financial and other resources.

Members of the Qiang community in A’er, China, celebrate the restoration of their temple, a project supported by the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. (State Dept.)

AFCP-funded projects also preserve intangible culture by helping countries document indigenous languages, rituals, traditional crafts, music and dance.

To date, the program has given $50 million to support some 860 projects in more than 125 countries.

It’s “made a real difference by bolstering the preservation of places, museum collections and traditions that were at the brink of total loss,” adds Burnham.

Discussions between U.S. embassies and local heritage advocates identify at-risk landmarks, collections, languages, customs and traditions.

“Collaborating with local stakeholders is crucial to the AFCP’s mission and success,” explains AFCP program director Martin Perschler. “By working closely with these communities, we demonstrate respect for their cultural heritage while jointly developing tools and strategies to help them preserve an important part of their history.”

In Laos, young ordinands of the Yao Mun ethnic minority are dressed in ceremonial robes for a Taoist ritual. The traditions of the Yao people have been extensively documented with help from the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. (State Dept.)

Three treasures saved

Thanks to AFCP funding, one of China’s oldest minorities had its language and customs documented for posterity and its temple restored after the structure was nearly destroyed by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

An AFCP grant also brought an anthropologist to a remote village in Laos to help indigenous residents document their Taoist rituals and create a related museum exhibition.

The restoration of Bolivia’s 18th-century Lagunas Chapel was supported by the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. Members of the local community (inset) played important roles in the project. (State Dept.)

And in Bolivia, the AFCP helped indigenous shepherd communities restore several architecturally significant but badly damaged Colonial-era chapels erected by the shepherds’ ancestors. The restored chapels are now used for worship but also generate tourism revenue for the local population.

By engaging with communities around the world to ensure the survival of cultural treasures, says Burnham, the AFCP reminds us “just how important these places, objects and traditions are and will continue to be.”