A fully restored Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, 1999 - Public Domain

Welcome to the August issue of the Observer. This month we focus on cultural heritage, how we can protect it, and what we can learn from past cultures in terms of resilience, adaptation, and mitigation.

Just last week we were reminded that the world’s cultural heritage is vulnerable and that we must work harder to protect sites of cultural and historic significance. In the early hours of August 24, a 6.2-magnitude tremor shook central Italy, killing at least 159 people and devastating a number of small medieval towns north of Rome. The town of Amatrice—popular with tourists in the summer months—was hit hardest and completely reduced to rubble. Nearby Accumoli—equally picturesque—was also severely damaged. The tragedy highlighted Italy’s shortcomings in terms of disaster preparedness and strict building standards. Due to extensive illegal construction practices in Italy, the latter are notoriously difficult to implement. As a result, many buildings are constructed using low-quality cement and inadequate supporting iron rods (Aloisi 2009; Mesco and Legorano 2016).

Along with these newer buildings, centuries-old monuments also collapsed during the latest tremor, including two historic churches in Amatrice. Protecting such treasures against the risk of earthquakes is no easy task. This was painfully clear on September 26, 1997, when two consecutive earthquakes hit central Italy.

During the aftershocks, the vault of the 11th century Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi collapsed and severely damaged frescoes by the famous Italian artist Giotto. The church—which is the final resting place of Saint Francis—had been strengthened in the 1950s and wooden beams supporting the roof were replaced by heavy reinforced concrete. After the 1997 quakes, experts concluded that the vault had collapsed because the stiff concrete beams did not absorb the impact of the quake the way the wooden beams would have (Castellano and Infanti, 2005).

The restoration of the Basilica that followed after the quake included the use of innovative materials and techniques like shape memory alloy devices and shock transmission units to prevent future earthquake damage (Castellano and Infanti 2005). The restored Basilica was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2000.

Threats posed to UNESCO World Heritage sites by environmental and manmade hazards are a central concern of heritage conservationists. Many efforts have been made to protect our cultural heritage in recent years. On a global level, UNESCO launched the Strategy for Risk Reduction at World Heritage Properties in 2007, an initiative designed to include heritage sites in national disaster reduction policies, as well as applying DRR principles to World Heritage property management (UNESCO 2016).

Publications about the risk faced by heritage sites and the ways to manage that risk are legion. What is lacking, according to author James Mitchell, are publications about UNESCO World Heritage sites that serve as examples of hazard engagement. His article looks at 47 of such sites and analyzes lessons that can be learned from past cultures’ responses to natural hazards and disasters.

While it is true that the impact of disasters on our cultural heritage has become a popular research subject, that doesn’t mean there are comprehensive disaster response plans in place to protect them.

For example, many cemeteries—which are vulnerable to a myriad of disasters that include flooding, land erosion, tornadoes, wildfires, and earthquakes—are not sufficiently prepared for natural hazards. Authors William Lovekamp, Gary Foster, and Steven Di Naso argue that because cemeteries have historical, spiritual, emotional, and cultural value, their preservation is especially important. The loss of cemeteries can be tantamount to the loss of communities, as well as their histories and identities.This comparison rings true especially when communities have declined so much that only cemeteries remain. In their article, Lovekamp, Foster, and Di Naso examine the challenges of disaster planning for cemeteries and discuss the benefits of cemetery mapping using GPS, and explorative geophysical methods such as ground penetrating radar and electromagnetic induction.

Planning ahead for disasters is also vitally important for libraries. Since the dawn of the Information Age, the role of public libraries in the community has changed significantly. Today, libraries are hubs of information that provide a wide variety of services, including access to computers and the Internet. Especially in the aftermath of disaster, many people rely on their local library’s services to request aid, find missing family and friends, file claims, and begin rebuilding their lives. Libraries also serve as a safe haven from the chaotic storm of displaced lives. In light of all this, author Miriam Kahn writes that it is essential for libraries to have well-thought-out and effective disaster response plans. Her article presents a set of clear guidelines about how to write such a plan.

This issue’s articles show that to protect our museums, libraries, cemeteries, temples, and other places of cultural significance we must look at and learn from the past. When we combine these valuable lessons with modern knowledge we have a chance to preserve these irreplaceable sources of inspiration and human identity for future generations.

Enjoy your Observer!

Elke Weesjes, Editor


Aloisi, Silvia. 2009. “Italy Earthquake Exposes Poor Building Standards” Reuters April 7, 2009 http://uk.reuters.com/article/us-italy-quake-buildings-idUKTRE5364T720090407 (accessed on August 26, 2016).
Catellano, M.G., and S. Infanti. 2005. “Seismic Protection of Monuments by Shape Memory Alloy Devices and Shock Transmitters” in Structural Analysis of Historical Constructions (ed. Modena, Lourenco and Roca). http://www.hms.civil.uminho.pt/sahc/2004/1229.pdf (accessed on August 26, 2016). Mesco, Manuela and Giovanni Leograno “Earthquake Exposes Italy’s Disaster Vulnerabilities and Shortcomings” The Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2016 http://www.wsj.com/articles/earthquake-exposes-italys-disaster-vulnerabilities-and-shortcomings-1472068886 (accessed on August 26, 2016).
UNESCO. 2016. Reducing Disaster Risks at World Heritage Properties. http://whc.unesco.org/en/disaster-risk-reduction/ (accessed on August 26, 2016).