ICONIC: UNESCO World Heritage Entry and Photography by Sarah Reddan


We are now well into the month of December.  This month we are thinking about iconic historic buildings, heritage sites and the well-known heritage policies that protect them.

What’s more iconic than the sites featured on the UNESCO World Heritage List? The List now has over 1,000 cultural, natural and mixed heritage properties that have Outstanding Universal Value, meaning “significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity” (“World Heritage Guidelines,” 2015).

Heritage inventories have been around since 1837, starting in post-revolutionary France.  The Commission des Monuments Historique made inventories of historic buildings, categorized by their age, style, and any events associated with the building.  The concept of heritage inventories spread and other countries began to make their own lists, connecting heritage to nation-building.  Over the years, heritage became professionalized as it came under state control, shifting heritage out of the hands of local enthusiasts into the hands of expert architects and museum professionals (Harrison 2013, 44, 56).

International guidelines for safeguarding heritage started 1931 with the Athens Conference, organized by the International Museums Office. The group drafted the Athens Charter to collaborated on the restoration of historic buildings.  However, it was the mass destruction of heritage in WWII that drew international attention to heritage and sense of global responsibility to protect it.  After WWII, new international agencies, such as the UN, developed to promote international cooperation and avoid another world war.  UNESCO was also developed in 1945 to forge international peace through education, science, and intercultural understanding (“Introducing UNESCO,” n.d.).  In 1954, the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, known as the Hague Convention, had countries agree not to destroy or damage cultural properties during armed conflict.

In 1959, UNESCO became involved with the moving of the Abu Simbel temples in Egypt due to the building of the Aswan Dam, which would flood the Nile River Valley where the temples were located.  This international safeguarding campaign moved 23 temples and was completed in 1968.  However, the Aswan Dam project also displaced over 100,000 Nubians who lived in the area were the dam was being constructed.  UNESCO was criticized for being more concerned with fighting for the protection the physical fabric of the temples than fighting for the rights of the community (Harrison 2013, 61).

UNESCO’s work in preserving the Abu Simbel temples on an international level led the Second Congress of Architects and Specialist of Historic Buildings to create an international charter on the conservation and restoration of monuments and sites, which was the Venice Charter in 1964.  In 1972, the Venice Charter’s proposals were brought to the United Nations, “appealing to the idea of threat, and suggesting that the threat of the loss of heritage was an issue for the concern of all humanity.” (Harrison 2013, 63).

The UNESCO World Heritage Convention was signed in 1972 and the first 12 heritage properties were added to the World Heritage List in 1978.  To be added on the list, a site needs to have Outstanding Universal Value as well as have some sort of protection and management in place to ensure the site will be preserved (“The Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention,” n.d.).  After realizing that most of its sites were cultural heritage sites located in Europe, UNESCO created a new Global Strategy in 1994 to promote a more balanced List by prioritizing natural and mixed sites as well as sites from countries outside of Europe (“Global Strategy,” 1994).

World Heritage was developed through the idea of globalization to avoid another World War and to safeguard heritage from destruction.  It also pushed the idea that heritage around the world is the concern for everyone, not just the community’s whose identities, histories and traditions are associated with the site, building or place.

In the past few decades, UNESCO World Heritage has been scrutinized for only focusing on the physical fabric of a heritage site.  Through the revisal of its guidelines over the years, it has attempted to promote the involvement of the community, but like the case of the Aswan Dam, there are many cases where the focus has been preserving heritage over the concern of the local community.  Another criticism is the negative attention sites on the World Heritage List receive, which some believe helped make Palmyra a target.  In addition, the World Heritage List can drive increased tourism to the designated sites, which can have a negative impact on the fabric and cause urbanization of the area.  In addition, the protection and monitoring of the sites, with UNSECO’s oversight, concerns others who believe that World Heritage status is halting cities’ ability to develop and modernize, such in the case of London’s Westminster Abbey area and Liverpool.  Finally, because the World Heritage Committee is made up of representatives of 21 State Parties, political agendas can steer the designation or values of a site, which is seen in the recent cause of the Old City of Jerusalem where pro-Palestine members pushed forward a new resolution that ignored the Jewish ties to the heritage.

Regardless of the criticisms, there is no doubt that UNESCO World Heritage has helped preserved sites across the world with their guidance, funds, and coordination between different parties, stakeholders, and heritage professionals.  However, it is time that UNESCO World Heritage considers new values or guidelines that further incorporate ways post-designation to safeguard heritage sites outside of just the physical fabric.  In addition, guidelines need to be revised to ensure the List is not driven or affected by political agendas.



“Global Strategy,” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Accessed October 6, 2016. http://whc.unesco.org/en/globalstrategy

Harrison, Rodney, “Prehistories of World Heritage: The emergence of a concept,” in Heritage: Critical Approaches. (New York:  Routledge, 2013).

UNESCO, September 24, 2012. http://en.unesco.org/about-us/introducing-unesco

“The Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention,” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Accessed December 9, 2016. http://whc.unesco.org/en/guidelines

“UNESCO World Heritage Centre – World Heritage List.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Accessed December 9, 2016. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list

Main Photo: Lalibela, Ethiopia World Heritage Site, designated in 1978. Photo by Sarah Reddan