World Heritage
World Heritage

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2.1 An overview of World Heritage

This course provides a survey of the politics, history and workings of World Heritage bodies as one of the bases for investigation and analysis in the chapters that follow.

According to Robert Hewison, heritage can mean anything you want – it can mean everything or nothing (Hewison, 1987, p. 32). But does his critique of Britain’s heritage also apply more widely to World Heritage? Partly perhaps, for investigation of this late twentieth-century phenomenon reveals a vast international bureaucracy that decides what World Heritage is and exercises huge influence over its management. Heading this, and based in Paris, is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Centre, which defines, protects and promotes cultural and natural sites, sustained in many instances by large-scale government investment. Its global reach is supported by an array of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which are politically independent of governments but sometimes funded by them. The great majority derive their mission from UNESCO conventions and protocols to which their respective countries (or state parties) are signatories. Laurajane Smith (2006, pp. 87–114), following Byrne ([1991] 2008) provides a review of these heritage protocols and the discourse they have promoted. World Heritage in the 1970s was seen as being defined by an essentially European, certainly western, mindset – revisions stuck closely to the original precepts, and diversification, while slow, had speeded and begun to embrace non-western and non-traditional heritages. Natural heritage seems to have been a poor runner-up in the race for inscriptions (discussed below), suggesting a secondary role in the World Heritage portfolio. Yet the picture is variable because in the USA, Australia and elsewhere, natural sites dominate the World Heritage List. And, if it means anything, many natural sites are on a massive scale compared with cultural sites.

In this course you increase your understanding of what World Heritage is: you learn more about the NGOs that delimit its activities and run it; its complex protocols and procedures; the scope of cultural, natural and intangible heritages; and the wide diversity of World Heritage sites. Three case studies explore examples of industrial heritage, World Heritage Cities and World Heritage in relation to economics. Following this course it should be possible to explore particular interests with a better appreciation of the processes and implications of World Heritage strategies for designation, conservation, regeneration, cultural tourism and other issues addressed elsewhere in this book.

This is a huge subject of truly global proportions. Coverage in this book is inevitably limited, and both overviews and case studies are highly selective. Indeed some elements of the world’s patrimony, natural or cultural, are of such significance that they would merit inclusion on any list of wonders. Among natural features counted as World Heritage, the Great Barrier Reef off Eastern Australia, the Amazonian rainforests, and human artefacts like the Great Wall of China and the Egyptian pyramids fall into this category; but of course there are many other famous sites in the world that do not quite match these in scale or perhaps even in importance. This raises immediate issues: why World Heritage? What is big enough or of such importance that it can be considered for inclusion, and does important mean ‘biggest and best’? How is inclusion determined, and who decides what’s in and what’s out? Who maintains and promotes such places, landscapes or cultures, and to what political, social and economic ends? What impact do World Heritage inscriptions and related developments have on communities, indeed on regions and nations? Such questions are discussed and reviewed generally and in the case studies in this course.

According to the Venice Charter (ICOMOS, [1964] 1996a), World Heritage sites are places or buildings of outstanding universal value recognised by UNESCO as constituting a World Heritage ‘for whose protection it is the duty of the international community as a whole to co-operate’. While the definition has been broadened substantially to embrace many natural and cultural sites, the original ethos and underlying precepts and protocols of the charter prevail. Moreover, as Laurajane Smith (2006, pp. 91–3, for example) indicates, World Heritage has its own vocabulary, using the discourse of international diplomacy. Much of its documentation, originating in French, takes on a mid-Atlantic flavour in English, something readily appreciated from the numerous websites dedicated to the subject. This course’s review is confined to the major international players but there are many national, regional and local bodies whose activities can be assessed via their websites. This review draws heavily on the writer’s personal experience as a historian and heritage practitioner in the UK, Australia and the USA, opinions being his own not those of heritage bodies with which he has been or continues to be associated.

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