South Western Federation of Museums and Art Galleries

Conference blog: Resolving the tensions between protection & presentation in a World Heritage Site landscape

This blog post is the first in a series of posts that share knowledge from the South West Fed Conference ‘Inspiring Audiences: Home and Away’. Here, Jane Marley shares what she learnt from Sarah Simmonds’ presentation ‘Stonehenge and Avebury: Resolving the tensions between protection and presentation in a World Heritage Site landscape’.



Sarah Simmonds is Partnership Manager for Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site. Sarah’s presentation was a case study that explored the challenge of protecting and presenting the World Heritage Site and the tension between these two pivotal obligations of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. It looked at approaches taken by partners to providing inspiring and enriching visitor experiences while protecting the fragile World Heritage Site landscape which has experienced a significant rise in visitor numbers. The presentation also discussed how the 'Exploring the World Heritage Site and Beyond' project will involve partners across the multi-owner, multiple agency landscape in addressing remaining challenges in the areas of sustainable tourism, transport and landscape access.

Here are five things I learnt about managing the challenge of protecting and presenting a World Heritage site:

1. Focus on the appropriate priorities and create a management plan accordingly. The World Heritage site is best protected and presented by focusing on a management plan based on the priorities of the World Heritage Convention 1972 (adopted by UNESCO) rather than the diverse priorities of the partners (https://whc.unesco.org). The whole World Heritage site comprises much more than Stonehenge and Avebury; the area around each site is 25 square kilometres containing many scheduled monuments with still more being discovered. The sites are internationally important for their outstanding complexes of prehistoric monuments. To be a World Heritage Site, Stonehenge and Avebury met the 10 criteria of the Outstanding Unusual Value (OUV) of the World Heritage Convention, and the Management Plan is based on the OUV. (https://whc.unesco.org/en/criteria/)

2. Making information available to the public about potential erosion and damage will help with preservation. In the early 20th century there were few visitors to Stonehenge but now there are 1.5 million visitors and the trend continues upwards. There is an obligation to enable the visitors to understand the whole site and explore it and to spread the visitors around it to preserve and protect the most popular areas while working with multi ownership e.g. National Trust, English Heritage and Natural England. More visitors and greater exploration causes erosion and potential damage and this is dealt with by informing the public on audio tours and in other ways.


3. Providing excellent interpretation and participation programmes will help visitors understand the site. At Stonehenge, improvements were stimulated through an Environmental Improvement Project and by creating a strategy for interpretation and participation 2010 – 2015. This resulted in an award-winning visitor centre, interpretation galleries and Neolithic house complex with demonstrations, temporary exhibitions, the Celestial Stonehenge Programme: ‘Stonehenge Star Gazing', the Skyscape web site (https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge/skyscape/). Interpretation in the landscape itself has improved visitor understanding of the whole site.

4. Balance access and preservation. Avebury has around 350,000 visitors a year and won Second Best World Heritage site in 2013. The landscape is open and visitor parking has remained limited to keep a balance between access and preservation of the site and the lives of the residents. Local people have benefited by working with local stakeholders to produce the ‘Avebury World Heritage Site Resident’s Pack’, a newsletter, ‘Megalith’ and involving school children, local volunteers and the Military of Defence (MoD) personnel in on site projects.

5. Time, trust and accountability are key in working with a Partnership Panel and Steering Group to manage conflicting priorities of partners. In future, more partnership working will be necessary to keep building relationships with partners about elements of the management plan, the agreed principles and how they contribute to it. The way forward is for there to be opportunities for partners to feedback, report on progress and come to an agreement on any issues and tensions (such as the A303 controversial project).

This blog post was written by Jane Marley, South West Fed Conference Team. The presentation was by Sarah Simmonds'. Sarah Simmonds has over a decade of experience in World Heritage Site management specialising in partnership working, participatory management planning, community engagement, landscape scale strategies and planning policy. Previously she worked with the UN as a capacity building specialist in both East Timor and Afghanistan and with NGOs in Indonesia. Sarah has a master’s degree in Cultural Heritage from the Institute of Archaeology, UCL where she undertook fieldwork with UNESCO in Ethiopia. She was co-author of the 2015 joint Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site Management Plan and is currently working on developing a sustainable funding model for the World Heritage Site with NLHF support. She is also working with partners to design a landscape access and sustainable tourism strategy for the World Heritage. Sarah is a member of the Executive Committee of ICOMOS UK.