Maintaining Authenticity and Integrity at Cultural World Heritage Sites

By Alberts, Heike C.; Hazen, Helen D. | The Geographical Review, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Maintaining Authenticity and Integrity at Cultural World Heritage Sites

Alberts, Heike C., Hazen, Helen D., The Geographical Review

Across the globe, historically significant sites are in perilous situations. To help prevent destruction of such sites, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designed an international agreement to identify and protect cultural and natural sites of "outstanding universal value." Known as the "World Heritage Convention," this agreement considers "authenticity" and "integrity" when appraising World Heritage sites. (1) To ensure that this goal is attained, UNESCO requires state parties to the convention to enact sufficient legislative and regulatory measures to safeguard significant attributes of properties. Site managers must balance the needs and desires of local inhabitants and visitors to the sites with World Heritage preservation ideals. In this article we consider common threats to cultural World Heritage sites and the extent to which the notions of integrity and authenticity are useful in guiding preservation efforts and balancing the needs and goals of multiple stakeholders.


In the late nineteenth century the global community began to develop the first international conventions related to the protection of cultural heritage. These focused mainly on protecting cultural sites in times of conflict, the importance of which became particularly clear during World War II, when destruction of another state's cultural heritage was not only acceptable but even policy, as illustrated by the targeted bombings of Bath, Canterbury, Bremen, and Dresden (von Droste zu Hulshoff 1995). (2) War and political upheaval also led to changing meanings attached to cultural heritage, as control over particular buildings or sites passed from group to group (Rowntree and Conkey 1980). After World War II, commitment to protecting cultural heritage moved beyond conflict situations to include day-to-day threats, such as pollution and urban expansion. The vulnerability of cultural sites to development pressures in the rapidly changing postwar world was highlighted in the 1960s when construction of the Aswan Dam threatened to inundate more than twenty ancient Egyptian sites, including the world-renowned Abu Simbel Temple. Previously, heritage concerns had typically been seen as largely local or national issues, but this case stimulated the internationalization of efforts to protect heritage as UNESCO began campaigning for funds from the international community for salvage operations. Eventually, UNESCO raised sufficient money to move fourteen temples to new sites and numerous other artifacts to museums (Smith 2003). The success of this campaign became instrumental in generating support for an international convention for protecting cultural heritage.

The internationalization of the heritage movement led to the drafting of the World Heritage Convention by UNESCO. Adopted in 1972, the convention encouraged the "identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity" (WHC 2007b). As of October 2009 the convention included 890 properties and had been ratified by 186 state parties (WHC 2009c), making the World Heritage Convention one of the most significant international tools of conservation in terms of sheer scope. Although sites can be nominated for cultural and/or natural values, the vast majority of World Heritage properties--689--are cultural sites (WHC 2009c), the focus of this article.

Individual state parties nominate sites for listing; UNESCO then inscribes those that meet their specified criteria for inclusion. For cultural sites, UNESCO requires that a site meet at least one of the following criteria: [The site shall]

(i) represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;

(ii) exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;

(iii) bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;

(iv) be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history;

(v) be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change; [and/or]

(vi) be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance, (WHC 2008, [paragraph]77) Two advisory bodies assist UNESCO with implementation of the convention for cultural sites: The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) evaluates sites for inclusion on the list and monitors their condition and preservation efforts; and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) focuses on research and documentation and also provides technical assistance (WHC 2008). …

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