Gfeller, Aurélie Elisa:

Striving For Common Ideals Above and Beyond the Iron Curtain: European Conservation Experts and the Early Days of ICOMOS

In 1965, in Warsaw, a group of like-minded professionals created the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). A year earlier, twenty-three conservation experts—among whom nineteen Europeans, including one Austrian, one Czech, one Pole, and one Yugoslav—had signed an International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites, better known as the Venice Charter. ICOMOS was designed to foster cooperation among professionals across national boundaries and to spread the gospel of the Venice Charter.

From the 1960s to the late 1980s, Europeans played the leading role in shaping the ICOMOS agenda. They did so largely because European experts on both sides of the Iron Curtain collaborated very closely to promote the same set of values and principles0 - notably, the preservation of monuments and sites based on scientific methods, with due respect for all historical strata. These experts included the Belgian Raymond Lemaire, the Italian Piero Gazzola, and the Pole Stanislas Lorentz. All three were founding members of the ICOMOS Executive Committee’s Bureau. Their correspondence suggests that the division of Europe did not prevent fruitful cross-European exchange during the 1960s and the 1970s - quite the opposite. The debate on revising the Venice Charter during the 1970s and the early 1980s further testifies to their shared belief in a common set of principles.

British and American experts were challenging the Charter’s focus on architecture while their Latin American counterparts were criticizing its universalistic and imputed imperialistic underpinnings. Europeans from both East and West, by contrast, pleaded for keeping it largely unaltered. The Charter was ICOMOS’s “constitution”, the Rumanian Vasile Dragut asserted at the 1978 Moscow ICOMOS General Assembly. By tracing transnational expert connections across the Iron Curtain, this paper shows why theory and practice did not evolve on two parallel tracks in a divided Europe, but in a process of exchange and dialogue.

Aurélie Elisa Gfeller is a Swiss National Science Foundation Ambizione fellow and a guest lecturer at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. She holds a PhD in history from Princeton University and has published in such journals as Cold War History, Contemporary European History and Cultures & Conflits. Her first book Building a European Identity: France, the United States, and the Oil Shock was published by Berghahn Books in 2012. She is currently conducting a research project on the history of international heritage cooperation with a focus on the UNESCO World Heritage Convention.