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Memory of the World: Preserving the past to shape a better future

UNESCO's mission in the Asia Pacific region to preserve and protect our precious documentary heritage.

Wat Po in Bangkok, Thailand.

©UNESCO/ S. Ornager

Mongolian Heritage

©UNESCO/ C. Longobardi

Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things” that is what Cicero said in 55 B.C.E. and that is what UNESCO still believes in, nowadays. It is for that reason that in 1992 UNESCO established the Memory of the World (MOW) programme, which together with the World Heritage Programme and the Intangible Heritage Programme, strive to protect the treasures for all of us, including our memories.

Ms. Susanne Ornager, UNESCO Advisor for Communication and Information in Asia, explained that A considerable proportion of the world’s documentary heritage disappears through natural causes, such as acidified paper that crumbles to dust, or leather, parchment, film, or magnetic tape that is ruined by light, heat, humidity, or dust. […] In addition to insidious causes of decay, accidents regularly afflict libraries and archives”. The reasons given can prevent people from benefit of documents that attest their past and milestones which are the basis of their culture.

The Memory of the World (MOW) Programme aims to preserve world’s documentary heritage, raise awareness about the programme and increases the possibility for everyone to have access to the registered heritage.

In order to perform these tasks and protect the items registered in its programme, MOW established a Register through which countries can submit their nominations to be registered in the Programme. The nominations for the Register may be submitted by any person or organization, including governments and NGOs.

The selection criteria includes, for instance: representing a contribution to an important period; containing a subject/theme of great significance; having form and style of a particular value, and representing a social value in human history and development.

Currently the heritage protected by MOW consists of 193 items worldwide of which 42 are in the Asia and Pacific region. Several countries globally are still trying to become part of the programme.

The cooperation with UNESCO has been initiated and established to better preserve their treasures and put them under the protective umbrella of the MOW Programme.

For example, in 2010 Thailand has submitted a request to inscribe The Epigraphic Archives of Wat Pho (Temple of the Bodhi Tree) in the MOW Register. The Epigraphic Archives of Wat Pho in Bangkok is a unique collection of 1,431 inscriptions in Thai language and scripts on limestone, marble and slate plates made in 1831-1841 on both religious and secular subjects, representing a wide range of Thai knowledge of Asian and local roots of the time in the context of over five centuries of global exchanges in trade, politics and culture.

At the same time, Mongolia nominated the Lu.“Altan Tobchi” (The Golden History) to be listed. This document was written with a bamboo pen on muutuu paper[1] in black ink in Mongolian vertical script. This manuscript presents the history of Mongolia and neighbouring countries from Chinggis Khan to Ligden Khan (from 13th to 17th centuries).

It may be said that this Lu.“Altan Tobchi” is the most ancient surviving example of the primary Mongolian source editions of the “Secret History” and 17th century reproduction of this history. The Lu.“Altan Tobchi” represents and bears an exceptional testimony to a specific nomadic tradition of Mongols that still exists and it wholly represents particular historical and social developments that affected considerable part of the world history during the 13th and 14th centuries.

The Mongolian and the Thai nominations are part of the current nominations that are currently under review by the International Advisory Committee (IAC). The Committee will study every nomination and choose only the ones that meet all the selection criteria of MOW requirements.

When this process is finished, the new heritages will become part of the MOW’s Documentary Heritage and the countries will ensure the preservation and safeguarding of the items and the accessibility for everyone.

On the occasion of the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, Ms. Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, stated that to build a better tomorrow “we must understand the past to shape a common future founded on dialogue and understanding”.


By Chiara Longobardi, UNESCO Bangkok


For further information:

Memory of the World Programme

A complete list of selection criteria

List of Current Nominations

[1] The Muutuu paper is a type of papyrus.