Wide Angle

In UNESCO World Heritage Site Quest, Mount Vernon Downplays George Washington

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 5, 2009

Just about every American, from the time they're 6 or so, learns that Mount Vernon is Founding Father George Washington's home. They draw pictures of the grand farmhouse in art class. Study it in history. File onto buses and reverently visit the hallowed ground along the Potomac River.

And right now, that's Mount Vernon's problem. There's just too much George, according to some international culture experts, who are considering whether the historic estate belongs on the United Nations' list of World Heritage sites.

A group advising the U.S. government on getting American sites onto the prestigious list initially rejected Mount Vernon because of the George factor. Now, the revised application hardly mentions George Washington. Instead, Mount Vernon proposes to become a World Heritage site -- a place of "outstanding universal value" -- because it is a preeminent example of "an evolved cultural landscape of the 18th-century American south, based on English models."

Even that might be a stretch.

"I hope people don't come away with the thought that George Washington is not good enough," said Stephen Morris, chief of the National Park Service's Office of International Affairs. "It's just that there are rules to the program, and you've got to be strategic in how you go about following them."

A committee of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization met last week in Seville, Spain, to choose from among 27 would-be World Heritage sites. Although Mount Vernon's application won't be considered until next summer, the proposal is already creating controversy.

That George Washington was a great man in U.S. history, no one doubts. It's just that sites on the World Heritage list are supposed to transcend national borders and iconic national figures. "The list has to be representative of all periods, all times and all cultures of all humanity," says Gustavo Araoz, an American who was recently elected president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, a group of experts who counsel UNESCO on the World Heritage list.

"If we were to open the door to George Washington, then every country would want to have equal time for their Founding Fathers," Araoz says. "In Paraguay, they could put up the house of Dr. Francia, who is an important historical figure for Paraguay. But the rest of the world would say, 'Who? What?' " (Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco was the first leader of Paraguay after its independence from Spain in 1811. Among other things, he taxed marriage and ordered all dogs shot.)

"The World Heritage committee might look with apprehension at inscription of Mount Vernon, for fear of unleashing an avalanche of nominations for the homes of major national heroes in other countries," echoed the U.S. branch of Araoz's group.

How, despite such opposition, Mount Vernon has gotten this far is a byzantine tale of national power politics, international culture wars and political correctness.

In 1972, back when Venice was in danger of sinking forever and the ancient Egyptian temples of Philae and Kalabsha were about to be flooded by the Aswan Dam, UNESCO conceived of the World Heritage program to promote preservation of the world's cultural and natural treasures. Since then, the Great Barrier Reef, the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge, the Acropolis and 886 other sites in 140 countries have been "inscribed" as sites of global significance. (Sites have also been de-listed, as was the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in 2007 once Oman discovered oil there.)

The United States has 20 World Heritage sites, including the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty, as well as Monticello, which is included not in tribute to Thomas Jefferson, but in recognition of its architecture.

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