“…cultural heritage must be considered and judged primarily within the cultural contexts to which it belongs”

The world of cultural and natural heritage is diverse and fascinating, and for many of us, one of the main reasons we travel. To experience great art, architecture and natural beauty first hand nourishes us in ways which cannot be put into mere words, much like music, but music you can immerse your self in with all your senses. The most exceptional of these places have – since 1978 – found their way onto a list which sets them somewhat apart from the rest. These are World Heritage Sites and the list counts nearly 1100 sites.

Header photo: Erechtheion and the Caryatids, Acropolis, Athens

The number of European sites inscribed on the World Heritage list account for almost 40 percent. This hardly surprising, given the enormous amount properties worthy of conservation and protection on this continent, and one could easily argue that the concept of World Heritage preservation is very much a Eurocentric idea. However, the notion of what constitutes cultural heritage will always vary from country to country depending on numerous interdependent factors. In Japan, for example, even the Ise Grand Shrine (not World Heritage) which houses the national relics, is completely rebuilt every 20 years, but according to exacting, ancient guidelines. And while countries like Italy and France combined can boast of more than 90 sites on the World Heritage list, the African continent as a whole is totally under-represented. Many of the relatively few enlisted sites in the United States have been national parks for may decades, and as such, they are commonly known as national parks rather than as World Heritage. In Australia, all but three of the currently 19 World Heritage sites are natural sites, many of which are also national parks.

World Heritage is cultural or natural heritage which is so exceptional that it transcends all notions of boundaries, both literally and conceptually speaking. It must be of outstanding value to all man kind.

The iconic Sydney Opera House is a typical example of cultural “built” heritage with universal appeal. This famous landmark was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 2007. It meets criterion one (i) of the ten criteria for inscription, which states that it must “represent a masterpiece of human creative genius”:

Criterion (i): The Sydney Opera House is a great architectural work of the 20th century. It represents multiple strands of creativity, both in architectural form and structural design, a great urban sculpture carefully set in a remarkable waterscape and a world famous iconic building. (UNESCO)

Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House


A brief history of World Heritage

The World Heritage Sites programme is administered by UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Committee, composed of 21 UNESCO member states elected by the General Assembly.

In 1959, the Egyptian and Sudanese governments requested UNESCO’s help to save 3000 years old monuments and temples of ancient Nubia from an area that was to be flooded by the projected Aswan Dam. This was a major project unprecedented in UNESCO’s short history. Thanks to international funding and expertise from five continents, a total of 22 monuments and architectural complexes were dismantled, relocated and reassembled over a twenty-years span.

1972 – World Heritage Convention

The success of this campaign inspired the development and adoption in 1972 of UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The Nubian monuments from Abu Simel to Philae were inscribed in 1979. The first 12 sites were inscribed in 1978. Currently the World Heritage List counts 1,052 sites (July 2016).

All countries that have signed the convention are eligible to submit sites via its State Party, first to be put on the so-called Tentative list. The candidates are then evaluated by two organizations reporting to UNESCO, their advisory bodies: the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). They make a recommendation to the World Heritage Committee, which in turn votes annually at the General Assembly on which sites will be inscribed on the World Heritage list. In order to be nominated as World Heritage, a site must have outstanding universal value corresponding to at least one of ten criteria as stipulated by UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention. One average, some 25 sites are inscribed each year.

Only that which is authentic has the power to transcend all boundaries and be of universal value…


Outstanding Universal Value

The essence of a World Heritage Site can be summed up in three words: “Outstanding Universal Value”. A cultural or natural property is judged and deemed worthy of the designation ‘World Heritage Site’ if it meets at least one of the ten selection criteria as defined by UNESCO. Basically, a cultural site must represent a masterpiece of human creative genius in some shape or form, while a natural site must contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.

“Outstanding Universal Value means cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity”
UNESCO Operational Guidelines (OG49)

The meaning of the word ‘outstanding’ is self-explanatory. Whether we are talking about tangible or intangible world heritage, it simply means that something is clearly and easily recognizable because of its masterful and exceptional qualities. It stands out from the rest.

The word ‘universal’ means that we are talking about something that is boundless. A site’s attributes, e.g. those of Acropolis of Athens, are considered to be so exceptional that people all over the world will readily appreciate its qualities. They transcend time and place, or as UNESCO states; it transcends national boundaries, hence World Heritage, not only national heritage.


In order to properly judge if a given cultural/natural heritage truly has outstanding values beyond mere appearance, the site in question must also be authentic with a high degree of integrity. That which is authentic is of undisputed origin, not a copy. It is genuine, the real thing. UNESCO also points out that: ” …[it] must have an adequate protection and management system to ensure its safeguarding.” OG78

The Operational Guidelines (OG) naturally give special importance to a property’s outstanding universal values. OG52, however, emphasizes that the Convention is not intended for all kinds of properties of value, but: “…only for a select list of the most outstanding of these from an international viewpoint”. It is up to the State Parties, the national UNESCO office that is, to submit nominations of properties of cultural and/or natural value considered to be of Outstanding Universal Value and in turn for inscription on the coveted World Heritage list.

“Judgements about value attributed to cultural heritage, as well as the credibility of related information sources, may differ from culture to culture, and even within the same culture. The respect due to all cultures requires that cultural heritage must be considered and judged primarily within the cultural contexts to which it belongs”.

Local values beyond all borders

OG81 above states that: “…cultural heritage must be considered and judged primarily within the cultural contexts to which it belongs”. Those involved on a national or local level in nominating a site considered for inscription must go through a rigorous process of documentation explaining why they believe a site has Outstanding Universal Value and therefore worthy of World Heritage status. A World Heritage site should also be outstanding from and international viewpoint, according to UNESCO. Ultimately, it is up to UNESCO and its advisory bodies (ICOMOS/IUCN) to decide if a nominated site meets one or more of the ten selection criteria, and thus given status as World Heritage.

In simplistic terms we could conclude by saying that only that (property, place etc.) which is truly authentic and unique, and in many cases also firmly rooted locally, can be considered to have outstanding universal value. The “genius loci”, the spirit of a place, property, a landscape or a tradition, is an inseparable part of its physical expression. Two sides of the same coin, as it were. In short, only that which is authentic has the power to transcend all boundaries and be of universal value. However, whether this is a de facto universal value in the sense that it can be understood and appreciated by all or if it is a perceived universal value is always open to debate.


May 19th 2017

UNESCO’s Operational Guidelines (OG) can be downloaded here
The selection criteria are listed here
Header photo: Erechtheion and the Caryatids, Acropolis, Athens © Asgeir Pedersen, Heredajo