In March of 2020, when the worldwide pandemic brought the ICOMOS General Assembly scheduled for the fall of that year in Sydney Australia to a halt, planning for the event was already well underway. In the face of global uncertainty, the event’s host, Australia ICOMOS, and its many partners made the decision to hold the conference in 2023. And what an event it was!
The almost 7 years of planning paid off. With the theme “Heritage Changes: Resilience – Responsibility – Rights – Relationships”, the 21st General Assembly brought together 1,300 participants from around the world to focus on cultural heritage and promote responsible conservation. The diversity of participants (members, delegates, guests, exhibitors, partners and patrons) reflected the global reach of ICOMOS and its commitment to international collaboration. Representatives of more than a hundred National Committees and 31 International Scientific Committees were present. 24 International Scientific Committee events, more than 50 engaging side events, 81 Scientific Symposium sessions covering four themes and five programs, not to mention multiple meetings and content delivered in three languages and online.
Over 10 days, attendees experienced an opening ceremony at the World Heritage listed Sydney Opera House, notable keynote speakers, field trips, and a gala diner topped off by fireworks over Darling Harbor. With so much on offer, the delegates had to be very selective. For those interested in landscapes, they were many high points. Australia’s emphasis on land acknowledgments helped root the conference to place and linked it to the Aboriginal people who inhabit the region.
“We acknowledge the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation as the Traditional Custodians of the land on which the GA2023 Scientific Symposium will take place, and pay respects to their Elders past and present, and extend that respect to all First Nations and Indigenous peoples participating in GA2023“
Two different day long workshops at the start of the conference focused on aboriginal cultural landscapes, and on caring for Indigenous landscapes. The first was on the Murujuga Cultural Landscape in Australia comprising 100,000ha of remote land and sea country in the remote Pilbara. This landscape has been nominated for World Heritage inscription. Importantly, the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, representing Traditional Owner and Custodians for Murujuga, developed the nomination in partnership with the Western Australian Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions. An evaluation by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre is expected to commence next year.
Another workshop expanded on the Australian tradition of caring for a country. Titled Caring for Country: Indigenous voices on culture, heritage, and the climate crisis, this day-long event featured presentations by Indigenous peoples on the frontline of a crisis they did not create, which threatens cultural identity and intensifies longstanding issues of territory and appropriation. Goals of the session included informing National, regional and international policy and focusing attention on cultural impacts and lack of effective action in response to climate change.
Sessions touching on heritage landscapes were also spread throughout the scientific symposium, with themes such as the Nature Culture Journey as well as sessions on rights-based approaches and resilience. The conference’s location on the Pacific Rim attracted many delegates from Asia-Pacific as well as from South America. Indeed, the conference was rich with so many new voices and new ideas.