Admit It, You Have No Idea What It Means To Be A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Do You?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

It happens during every trip. When researching what to see in a particular city, your guidebook lists a notable church/temple/palace as a UNESCO World Heritage site. “Great,” you think to yourself, “I should definitely see it then.” And then when you get around to blogging or telling your friends about said structure, you inevitably state (in the interest of sounding authoritative and informed), “Today I visited [Blank]. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site you know! And after seeing it, I can certainly see why it made the list.” Of course for the fact that you (and I) have no idea why it actually did, right?

To start off, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), is a specialized agency within the U.N. whose roots date back to 1945. At the end of World War II, 37 countries came together to found the agency with the purpose of “creat[ing] an organization that would embody a genuine culture of peace and establishing the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind and, in so doing, prevent[ing] the outbreak of another world war.”

To that end, one could say they’ve been quite successful (67 years and counting of a world war-free planet!), but one who is a bit more realistic would likely point to their more modest success in preserving certain landmarks in the world as the agency’s real success story over the past half-century and counting.

As the New York Times recently discussed in a look at the impact of the agency’s preservation effort, “the World Heritage Convention, dating from 1972, buil[t] on the notion of the United States national parks system, which was set up to defend a wild landscape before it disappeared. The second, the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, was introduced in 2003 to defend traditions, not places, and is more controversial.”

So what goes into making the list as a Heritage site? According to UNESCO’s (web) site, a (non-web) site “must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria,” to which it then lists requirements including some as general as #1 (To represent a masterpiece of human creative genius), to some as narrow as #10 (To contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation).

For the full UNESCO World Heritage list of the the 725 cultural, 183 natural and 28 mixed properties in 153 countries/states, check out their site here, and go into world full-well knowing whether you’ve seen a certifiable masterpiece of human creative genius (besides this humble site).

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