Promoting Preservation: Diplomacy x Heritage



In 2001, the U.S. Department of State launched the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP), a program to help preserve cultural heritage worldwide and to officially incorporate cultural preservation and protection into American diplomacy. AFCP supports international preservation projects that span a wide range of cultural heritage initiatives, including the preservation of historic buildings, archaeological sites, ethnographic objects, paintings, manuscripts, indigenous languages, and other forms of traditional cultural expression. Since 2001, the Fund has supported more than 1,000 projects in over 130 countries with local museums, ministries of culture, nonprofits, and other organizations. Furthermore, AFCP projects provide professional development for American cultural heritage professionals and students from nearly all 50 states. In this episode of cultureXchanges, we are speaking with Dr. Martin Perschler, program director for the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation at the U.S. Department of State.

Episode Transcript

TK Harvey – Hello and welcome to cultureXchanges, a podcast at the intersection of the humanities and cultural diplomacy. I’m your host, Terry Harvey, Vice President of the Meridian Center for Cultural Diplomacy. This podcast series explores the impact of the arts and culture on diplomatic relations across the world through discussions with cultural diplomacy experts.

Today on cultureXchanges, we are speaking with Dr. Martin Perschler, Program Director for the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation and the Role of Cultural Heritage Preservation in American Foreign Policy. Established in 2001, the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation is a U.S. Department of State program that supports international preservation projects that span a wide range of cultural heritage initiatives, including the preservation of historic buildings, archaeological sites, ethnographic objects, paintings, manuscripts, indigenous languages, and other forms of traditional cultural expression. Since 2001, the Fund has supported over 1000 projects in over 130 countries with local museums, ministries of culture, nonprofits, and other organizations. Furthermore, AFCP projects provide professional development for American cultural heritage professionals and students from nearly all 50 states.

TK Harvey – Well, thank you for joining us, Dr. Perschler. I know our audience is looking forward to learning more about the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. I wonder if you could please provide a brief overview of the Fund?

Dr. Perschler – Sure. Thank you first for inviting me to participate in this podcast. The Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation is a very unique, yet not really well-known program of the US government. It was established in the fall of 2000. The State Department created it at the recommendation of Congress because both felt that cultural heritage preservation offered the United States an opportunity to show a different face of America to the world, one that was non-political, non-military, and non-commercial. Through support and initially through small grants for cultural heritage preservation projects overseas, our embassies are able to demonstrate our respect for other cultures. But also to show our respect for cultural diversity here in the United States. And so, in many ways, the program is a demonstration of our values.

TK Harvey – Yeah, I wonder if you could speak a little bit to the role that culture preservation plays in the United States as foreign policy objectives. In other words, you know, how does the preservation of cultural heritage around the world factor into America’s larger diplomatic goals?

Dr. Perschler – Well, you know, in addition to offering another avenue for our embassies to engage with foreign governments or foreign publics/communities, a lot of our projects are local. Support for cultural heritage preservation also helps us advance a lot of our larger foreign policy priorities. For example, engaging with women, youth, and underserved communities is an enduring priority for our government. And so, cultural preservation projects overseas, whether they involve a site or whether they involve a museum collection — or even intangible heritage such as traditional crafts or traditional music or dance — those projects can engage the women and the youth and these other communities that I described earlier. Because, in many ways, they are the bearers. They are the keepers of that heritage and of those traditions.

TK Harvey – So really, by investing in these forms of heritage, it really just underscores our commitment both here at home and abroad to diversity and inclusion and empowering artists and heritage.

Dr. Perschler – It does. And I like to think of it as showing that we view our bilateral relationships with other countries not just through the lens of economics or the military or politics even, but that we are approaching it holistically. And that what we are doing in introducing cultural heritage preservation as a tool of public diplomacy is we are recognizing the values that we share with our friends and allies around the world.

TK Harvey – Yeah, I guess from its origins, what need was the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation trying to address at its conception? And how has that changed over the past 22 years?

Dr. Perschler – The need was initially this gap or something that was missing in our public diplomacy “toolkit,” for lack of a better term. But I have to say, I think that the creation of the Ambassadors Fund Program came at a time when we in the United States were thinking seriously and differently about our cultural heritage preservation. The Ambassadors Fund came at the Millennium, and it came years after a program that we had here in the United States called Save America’s Treasures, the purpose of which was to prepare for our celebration of the Millennium by restoring historic sites and collections around our country that we felt were important. And I mentioned that because it was that awareness and that heightened awareness of cultural heritage and our needs and of the importance of heritage in perpetuating the story of who we are as a nation. I think it was that heightened awareness that, in turn, inspired people in Congress and in the State Department. Actually, it was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who had first suggested to ambassadors around the world to incorporate cultural heritage programming into their celebrations of the Millennium overseas. And so, I think it was that heightened awareness and the existence of a model here in the United States, in the form of this program, that led to the creation of this public diplomacy program.

TK Harvey – Interesting. I wonder if you could speak a little bit about how the Fund balances spearheading these projects while also sharing capacity and ownership with the local community that is most impacted by the preservation work being done.

Dr. Perschler – That’s a great question because one of the issues on our mind these days and in terms of the assistance that we are offering Ukraine. It is that nothing for Ukraine without Ukraine. And, you know, I like that because it’s the same philosophy that is the foundation of the Ambassadors Fund. All of the projects that we support each year are projects that are nominated locally, by the communities, by the ministries of culture, by the municipalities that are responsible for heritage. So, from the outset, we are receiving requests for support. And the requests are already for projects that communities and, you know, ministries value — and that they’re prioritizing. And we have the program set up so that communities actually apply through our embassies in country. We here in Washington, although we’re responsible for running the program, we’re almost the last ones in our review process to see the proposals. It’s structured that way by making it local, making the projects themselves community-based, keeping the process decentralized, and empowering our embassies. That helps us guarantee that we are not supporting anything in another country that they don’t themselves want.

TK Harvey – Yeah, and I wonder, you know, folks love examples and you’ve done such amazing work all over the world, so I’m sure it’s hard to pinpoint one to share with us. But I wonder if you can provide one example of a successful or significant project and its impact on the local community.

Dr. Perschler – Sure. We have a number. What’s been interesting to observe during the time that I’ve been involved with the Ambassadors Fund is that the impact isn’t necessarily a function of the length of time of a project or the amount of money invested. Some very small, targeted projects can have outsized impact. But there’s also something to be said about long-term engagement and investment in projects in a specific community. And one project that comes to mind, that is of extreme importance to us, is a project involving the conservation of a twelfth-century temple in Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia. It’s the site of the ancient Khmer Kingdom. What’s significant about this project is that it has been a sustained investment on our part for over 14 years, not only in the conservation of one of the most popular tourist attractions in this archaeological park. This is where tourists go to see the sunrise and the sunset over the other temples. But it’s not only the most popular one, it is also a laboratory and workshop for training the next generation of cultural heritage professionals and leaders in Cambodia. One of the many, many tragic outcomes of the despotic role of the Khmer Rouge was the loss of generations of knowledge and expertise, including the preservation of cultural heritage.

So, by supporting projects over the long term with capacity building and training at the center, we have contributed through this program towards the reconstruction of a professional sector — from stone carvers to project managers and designers who can take what they’ve learned through our program and continue to apply it. Not only at Angkor Park, but at other sites across Cambodia that are in need of conservation attention. One of the things that is really important about that project is our main partner, the World Monuments Fund. And I really need to give them credit for this, as they are partners with us on other projects in Southeast Asia, including in Burma and in Thailand. And because of that, they have been able to cross-train and to build a regional network of master artisans and project managers who can now cooperate, consult, and exchange ideas and solutions across borders. So, in this case, this project has not only been a tremendous benefit to the immediate community of craftspeople surrounding Angkor Archaeological Park, but it’s had a positive impact on the entire region.

TK Harvey – Yeah, really thinking beyond the scope of the project, you’re empowering the future of cultural heritage professionals. Really powerful stuff. I wonder if you could share a little bit about the current challenges the Fund faces from a preservation standpoint as well as a diplomatic standpoint.

Dr. Perschler – In addition to the usual challenges of conservation, you know, whether it’s preventing damage or destruction due to crises; whether it’s conflict or natural disaster; or worrying about the impacts, both short-term and long-term, of climate change on cultural heritage. Because we are a grant program, we also have the additional challenge, both diplomatically and in terms of conservation, of not being able to address all the needs out there around the world or give support. As unusual as it may sound, one of the most bittersweet moments in our annual cycle is when we announce our grants each year because we are able to only award about 25% of the requests that we receive. And that is because the demand and the need for preservation support is so great. And when you factor in things like global inflation, when you factor in the myriad of issues that the COVID pandemic has introduced, from limited labor to limited materials — the costs and the needs have just risen exponentially in the last few years. Now, diplomatically it is a challenge because it really puts us in the position of being mindful of expectations. And because we have relationships that are important to us, bilateral relationships that we want to maintain. Yet, we have this model of a grant competition, which is not as well known as a means of receiving funding in many parts of the world. And so, we have to be mindful of where and how frequently we support projects in different regions of the world.

TK Harvey – Yeah. And you use the term “bittersweet,” which is poignant because while at the same time you’re awarding well-deserving projects and professionals, there’s a lot of others that you just aren’t able to get to. And that’s understandably so. You touched on it earlier, just in terms of the process and applying for a grant from the Fund. I wonder if you could speak a little bit about that. You know, it kind of originates at the embassy and then comes to you at Main State. You could talk through that a little bit, just to help our audience.

Dr. Perschler – Sure. Every fall, usually in October, we announce to our embassies that we are open for another round of proposals for the Ambassadors Fund. And the embassies, in turn, announce that in the countries where they serve. We usually ask, for the first round, for a simple concept note that gives us a sense of what the project is, where it is, who is proposing it, who’s going to do the work, how long it might take, and a rough estimate of the cost. First at the embassy and then in Washington, we conduct preliminary reviews of those concept notes and then identify a subset of those for advancement to round two, which is the full application round. It’s at that stage that we invite applicants to submit a more detailed project description and budget. A budget narrative, information on the team such as resumes and CVs from the primary project participants. As well as things like statements of importance. You know, “Why is it this site and why is it important that the work take place now?” After that submission, we subject those applications to another round of review and then make our decisions and announce the results. It usually takes about six to seven months for that to take place, and so for an applicant who begins the process in the fall, they will most likely hear in June or July of the results.

TK Harvey – Quite a lot of proposals. I wonder if you could give our audience a sense of scale. I mean, are we talking hundreds upon hundreds, maybe even thousands? Like where are we in terms of numbers, in terms of how many you have to basically look through?

Dr. Perschler – I’ll give you a couple years of numbers. In 2022, we received 130 applications requesting a combined total of about $31 million and we were able to support 34 projects out of that, so about 25%. This year, 2023, we’re still in the review process, but we received 142, so 12 more than the previous year requesting about $36 million. And what I can say, because of the reasons I mentioned earlier, the average request is higher. It’s about $250,000 and that’s because it’s just more expensive these days to preserve or to conserve or to restore a site, a collection, or even intangible heritage properly.

TK Harvey – To leave our audience with one final question here, we would love to hear your thoughts on how you see the impact, thus far, that the Fund has had on cultural preservation around the world.

Dr. Perschler – Well, the impact thus far … What I didn’t mention about the program is that it started initially just with $1 million and this year we have $6.25 million. We’ve been able to achieve a lot with that over the course of 22 years. We’ve supported over 1200 projects in 133 countries, and that’s about $119 million over the 22-year period. In addition to the cumulative impact — the number of projects and amount invested in cultural heritage around the world — there is also something to be said about the way the projects themselves, or our approach to them, have changed. Over that 22 years, we have not only sharpened our focus on mitigating damage due to natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes, but responded to damage from crises such as conflict, not only in the Middle East but in other parts of the world. And we are part of a network of public and private sector donors who have come to recognize the value of community-centered preservation and basically engaging locally as one of the best ways of ensuring the long-term sustainability of our investment. So, in terms of impact, we’ve not only raised awareness, I would say, of the importance of planning and preventative conservation and of being responsive to crises, but I think we’ve also raised awareness of the importance of making sure that the projects we support engage communities in a meaningful way. Nothing for a community without the community’s engagement. That is how we know we are doing right by the people who are the stewards of the heritage and who are the ones responsible for its continued preservation after the projects we support are complete.

TK Harvey – Thank you. Beautifully said, Dr. Perschler. We at Meridian are in awe of all the great work that you’re leading around the world. On behalf of the State Department, I want to thank you again for helping us and our audience understand this a bit better.

Dr. Perschler – Thank you again for the opportunity to be a part of this amazing series.

TK Harvey – Great. Thanks a lot.

TK Harvey – Thank you for joining us today on cultureXchanges, a podcast that examines the impact of cultural diplomacy in its many forms on global relations. We’d like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding this podcast, our guest on this episode for taking the time to share their expertise, our podcast editor Ed Bishop, and our listeners for taking the time to engage in the world of cultural diplomacy.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this web page do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.