As a result of the 1972 World Heritage Convention, UNESCO is charged with preserving cultural and natural heritage sites around the world. Currently 187 nations are states parties, meaning that they agree to adhere to the World Heritage Convention and its guidelines. Since the World Heritage Convention’s creation, 911 properties have been designated as World Heritage sites. Of these 911 sites, 704 are cultural, 180 are natural and 27 are mixed. Additionally, in accordance with Article 11 of the Convention, 34 properties around the world have been placed on the List of World Heritage sites in danger.
Explain that UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is in charge of preserving cultural and natural heritage sites around the world. Ask students why they think such an international organization is necessary.
Ask students to write down what they think the meaning of “heritage” is. After students have the opportunity to jot down their ideas, ask students for their ideas and make note of their responses on the board. As a class, generate a working definition of world heritage and write it on the board. Compare this definition with UNESCO’s definition:
Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. Places as unique and diverse as the wilds of East Africa’s Serengeti, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Baroque cathedrals of Latin America make up our world’s heritage.
What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.
Ask students to brainstorm a list of sites they believe qualify as World Heritage and why. When students have exhausted ideas, share with them some of the sites on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage (the official list is available at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list). Next, ask students to generate a list of qualities and commonalities shared by these sites; be sure to write their ideas on the board. Compare their list to the official criteria for selection used by UNESCO at http://whc.unesco.org/en/criteria/.
Read the article “World Heritage in Danger” which is available at http://whc.unesco.org/en/158/. You may choose to have students read the article independently or out loud. Discuss the following questions as a class (answers are provided in parentheses):
- What are some dangers posed to world heritage sites? (Armed conflict and war, earthquakes and other natural disasters, pollution, poaching, uncontrolled urbanization and unchecked tourist development pose major problems to World Heritage sites)
- What happens when a site is inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger? (Inscription of a site on the List of World Heritage in Danger requires the World Heritage Committee to develop and adopt, in consultation with the State Party concerned, a program for corrective measures, and subsequently to monitor the situation of the site. All efforts must be made to restore the site's values in order to enable its removal from the List)
- How do countries respond to having one of their sites inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger? (Some countries apply for the inscription of a site to focus international attention on its problems and to obtain expert assistance in solving them. Others however, wish to avoid an inscription, which they perceive as a dishonour. The listing of a site as World Heritage in Danger should in any case not be considered as a sanction, but as a system established to respond to specific conservation needs in an efficient manner.)
- Why was Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley placed on the List? (This cultural landscape was inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2003 simultaneously with its inscription on the World Heritage List. The property is in a fragile state of conservation considering that it has suffered from abandonment, military action and dynamite explosions.)
- What happened to the Walled City of Baku in Azerbaijan? (Representing an outstanding and rare example of medieval architecture at the crossroads of the many different cultures in the region, the Walled City of Baku sustained significant damage during the earthquake of November 2000 and has been increasingly affected by the pressure of urban development, the absence of conservation policies and by questionable restoration efforts.)
After reading and discussing the article, ask students to brainstorm a list of practical solutions to reduce the risk posed to world heritage sites. An extensive list of UNESCO-approved policies and procedures can be found at http://whc.unesco.org/en/disaster-risk-reduction.
Explain to students that they will choose one site on UNESCO’s tentative list to research at http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists. A site on the tentative list is one which is under consideration for nomination for the World Heritage List. Students will learn about the risks posed to that site and a possible plan of action for its preservation. A research worksheet is available for download as a PDF. Teachers may choose to have students write a report, present an oral summary of their findings to the class or create a poster displaying their research and proposal for preservation. This research can be done either in class or for homework depending on how much class time is available.
Suggested Research Sites:
Some related themes suggested for research by UNESCO include:
- Disaster risk reduction
- Conservation of natural sites
- Climate change
These topics provide excellent opportunities for collaboration between history and science teachers. Students will benefit greatly from interdisciplinary education opportunities.
Also of interest may be the debate over cultural patrimony. Begin by having students read the article Yale Returns Incan Artifacts to Peru after 100 years and Who Draws the Borders of a Culture? Yet another resource for this is Whose Art Is It?
After reading the articles, have students conduct additional research about other cultural patrimony whose ownership is in question (e.g.: the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, the Euphronios Krater). Consider having students write a thesis-driven essay about who should possess the artifacts or staging a formal debate over the objects’ ownership.