A new vision of the History of UNESCO

Worldwide Views Topic

What has been the impact of UNESCO’s ideas and initiatives? How have UNESCO’s values and ideals been translated into practice over the past 70 years? Why does history matter for UNESCO? These are the questions that 17 historians address during this 70th anniversary history conference Making a Difference: Seventy Years of UNESCO Actions, on 28 and 29 October 2015, at UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

The conference covers a wide range of topics, from world heritage conservation to post-conflict reconstruction, from peace building to dissemination of knowledge. The objective is to gain a better understanding of UNESCO’s relevance and its capacity to help constructing peace in the minds of people, as defined in the its Constitution. 

The Deputy Director-General of UNESCO, Getachew Engida, will open the conference, alongside the Chairperson of the Executive Board of UNESCO, Mohamed Sameh Amr, the President of the General Conference of UNESCO, Hao Ping,  and Princess Marie of Denmark, Protector of the Danish National Commission for UNESCO.

The work of the conference is introduced by Poul Duedahl, Professor at the Aalborg University, Danemark, and Director of the Global History of UNESCO Project, sponsored since 2013 by the Danish Council for Independent Research. “The conference focuses on the Routes rather than the Roots of UNESCO’s initiatives, and on the local interventions and their impact rather than on the global initiatives and the ideas behind them,” Poul Duedahl explains (read his article "Is UNESCO changing the world?").

Five types of initiatives undertaken by UNESCO are on the agenda:

  • Initiatives taken to disseminate knowledge via different media platforms from the UNESCO Headquarters to implement change in the world.
  • Initiatives taken right after World War II as a first step towards the physical and mental reconstruction a war-devastated world.
  • Initiatives taken to help poor and newly-independent countries during the period of decolonization.
  • Initiatives taken to break down hostile stereotypes and promote peace via local educational systems.
  • Initiatives taken to implement a new vision of humanity as a unified entity by promoting the idea of a common heritage.

Within this thematic framework, the 17 participants at the conference, are contributing to what Duedahl calls “tracing the routes of various UNESCO initiatives from the center to the periphery – from UNESCO’s Headquarters in Paris to the member states,” to assess UNESCO’s impact on the mindsets in the wake of World War II.

Background of the project

“Ten years ago, we launched the UNESCO History Project,” explains UNESCO's Chief Archivist, Jens Boel. “The main objective was to encourage research on the history of the Organization, by multiplying different approaches and encouraging critical and multidisciplinary reflections on its past. In particular, the project fostered a more decentralized way of understanding this history, by looking at the Organization’s action through the perception and experience by actors in the field. ”

Another objective was to make a better use of UNESCO's archives, which hold more than 10,000 linear meters of paper records, going back to 1925 (since UNESCO preserves the archives of the League of Nations’ International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation), more than 5 million electronic documents and significant audiovisual collections: 30,000 audio recordings, 3,500 films and videos and 170,000 photos. “As part of the UNESCO History Project, we’ve created a worldwide network of more than 600 historians,” adds Jens Boel.

The first major activity of the Project was the international symposium “60 Years of UNESCO History”, in November 2005, which inspired Poul Duedahl develop the idea of a Global History of UNESCO Project, focused on the impact of the Organization. He proposed the project to the Danish Council for Independent Research and was successful.

 “I consider the anniversary conference Making a Difference: Seventy Years of UNESCO Actions (28-29 October 2015) as a very important step towards an in-depth understanding of UNESCO’s role in the post-war period," concludes Duedahl.

A book will come out in February 2016, at Palgrave Macmillan, with the conference papers: A History of UNESCO - Global Actions and Impacts.