World Heritage and Outstanding Universal Value

Figure 1. Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated sites. World Heritage Site (United Kingdom).

Through history there have been several attempts and approaches to define what should be considered as humankind’s heritage. Most of them, however, revolve around the idea of cultural and/or natural exceptionalism. Where something can be conceived as exceptional if it is equally valued by all people and societies around the world, and should be protected by humankind as a whole (Labadi, 2013). There is a predominant perspective to focus on outstanding cultural or natural features (or a combination of both) in a specific site.

Outstanding Universal Value basically conceptualizes the idea that some specific sites around the world are so exceptional that they can be valued equally by any person. Therefore, it should be seen as a humankind’s asset, and should be protected and appreciated by all people regardless of any social, economical, cultural or geographical differences (Labadi, 2013). Certainly this concept has evolved through time, but still functions as foundation for defining and develop criteria in relation with world heritage.

The concept of Outstanding Universal Value has been the main axis for the criteria developed by UNESCO to nominate and include sites on their list. Certainly, this perspective provides an important framework to determine which places, landscapes, cultural and natural assets should be considered as global patrimony of humanity. Nevertheless, it is necessary to understand that this criterion is mostly interpreted and put into practice by experts and professionals from several fields when the evaluation of a site comes into play.

Therefore, we should ask ourselves: how objective is the idea of Outstanding Universal Value in determining the World Heritage list?. The idea of what is exceptional and what is not exceptional can be very subjective, and whose opinions and considerations are being taken into account for these decisions becomes an important matter.

While it is true that deciding which World Heritage sites to inscribe are always related to social, economic, cultural and political factors, it is also related to the people and communities in which they are located. Undoubtedly, the interaction of World Heritage sites with different contexts and external factors creates a broad variety of heritage interpretations. For example, in some contexts heritage and World Heritage is visualized mainly as an economic resource, while in other cases it is valued more as knowledge provided by cultural experts (Graham, 2002).

Knowledge about most World Heritage Sites is provided by heritage experts and becomes authorized heritage. Smith (2006:11) defined authorized heritage as:

“power/knowledge claims of technical and aesthetic experts, and institutionalized in state cultural agencies and amenity societies.”

Authorized heritage is developed and controlled by experts that work with heritage, and very often are the ones who decide what is exceptional and what is not. Hence, both considerations and interpretations about heritage become centralized as well. Such a process entails a limitation on the participation of other sectors and entities that are entitled over the patrimony.

Undoubtedly, defining heritage and World Heritage Sites is a complex procedure that requires several considerations from different subjects involved. That is why a predominant conception of heritage or a unique centralized criterion to define World Heritage could be detrimental and little objective. Therefore, one must suggest that changes should be made on how heritage is defined. Arguing that all elements related to heritage, such as: considerations, different interpretations, subjects and entities involved, economic and cultural resources, and any other possible external factors; must be reassessed and included in the discussion. All of this, in order to enhance and make more objective the conception of heritage in general, and World Heritage is particular.


Graham, B., 2002. Heritage as Knowledge: Capital or Culture? Urban Studies, Vol. 39, Nos 5–6. Pp. 1003–1017.

Labadi, S., 2013. UNESCO, cultural heritage, and outstanding universal value: Value-based analyses of the World Heritage and Intangible Cultural Heritage Conventions. Rowman & Littlefield.

Smith, L., 2006. Uses of heritage. Routledge.