Blog Books

Book: The Heritage Universe

Although I did not need the credits anymore towards my Bachelor Degree in Cultural Sciences, I was tempted by a new course from the Dutch Open University about ‘Cultural Heritage’. It comes with a book called The Heritage Universe: 11 chapters on topics such as canonization, conservation and 'tainted' heritage.'

The Scientific Approach 

It would not be a proper scientific book without a theoretic model of course. In this case that of Austrian art historian Alois Riegl, who publicized his ideas around 1903-1905. He focussed on the experience of the individual, on the relationship we have with monuments and objects from the past. This in contrast to those scientists aiming for an ideal, universal standard. He distinguished 6 values that are attributed to objects/sites, such as age value, historical value, esthetic value and utility. So when we value ruins from Antiquity for example, we value them in a state that we can notice they are truly old (incomplete, overgrown, ruined). For him the 20th century was all about this 'age' criterion. The authors conclude that in the 21st century, conflict and nostalgia will be the main criteria for selecting heritage properties. 'Conflict' as in: not only the good or pretty things have to be saved (for example parts of the Berlin Wall). And nostalgia as 'longing for an idealized past'. The example used is the reconstructed Historic Centre of Warsaw, which was reverted to a 18th century Polish city instead of the much more German looking 1930s version it was just before destruction during WWII.

Chapter on World Heritage

One full chapter is allocated to UNESCO World Heritage. I couldn’t wait to read the authors’ opinion and see how much I already knew - in fact I started reading at this Chapter no. 6! There's so much to explain of course, and only 25 pages to do so and cover the basics. I did come across a few errors, some of which are pretty essential:

  • “Repeated” deferral/referral of Sydney Opera House because it was “too new”. It was never officially deferred/referred (let alone repeatedly), the nomination was withdrawn by Australia after a negative ICOMOS evaluation. Also it was not “too new” per se: the critics found a "lack of exemplary character or ... role as model".
  • Only 1 nomination per country is allowed each year, even including extensions or boundary changes. Not true of course: Denmark has no less than 3 hopefuls for 2015 for example! The official rule is: a maximum of 2, of which 1 must be a natural site or a cultural landscape. See Article 61 in the current Operational Guidelines.
  • The combination of 4 natural and 6 cultural criteria into 10 general criteria in 2003 is attributed to the advance of “mixed heritage sites or cultural landscapes”. No distinction is made in the text between mixed WHS and cultural landscapes, while in fact they’re two very different groups. Cultural landscapes are man-made sites, mixed WHS also have a purely natural component with its own OUV.
  • And the most funny glitch: the delisted Arab Oryx Sanctuary is described as a bird conservation area where a bird species has died out. It’s obvious the authors and their editors are not comfortable with the subject of natural heritage: the oryx is an antelope.
    Arab oryxes: No, they definitely are not birds
    Only secondary sources have been used by the authors in compiling this chapter, so they unfortunately missed out on the finer details of the WH Universe.


In general the book is an easy read, maybe even a bit too superficial for a university level course. The various chapters provide an introduction into what we categorize now as ‘heritage’ or have done so in the past. It explains the transformation from a western oriented, material heritage approach to the more immaterial focus of the east. The more recent emancipation of the Islamic World and the BRICS countries, which we have seen at the WHC in the past years, is still overlooked.

Marlite Halbertsma & Marieke Kuipers, Het Erfgoeduniversum (Uitgeverij Coutinho 2014)

Els - 27 June 2015

Leave a comment


Paul Tanner 28 June 2015

Regarding the real impetus for the merging of the 4 Natural and 6 Cultural Criteria into a single list (compared with that given in the book).
Out of interest I have tried to discover any "chapter and verse" as to why it was done. I can find nothing from the time (2003) - in fact the "merging" took place at a time of other significant changes to the OGs and seems to have passed without comment among them.
However, this quote from the later Kazan Expert Meeting of 2005 seems to be the best statement I can find as to why it was done - though how much "post hoc" reasoning it contains I don't know!
"The experts agreed that the combined set of criteria:
a) should be a major advance as it would foster closer working arrangements between the natural and cultural fields by giving equal prominence to both as envisaged by the Convention;
b) could add discipline to the evaluation of cultural properties as integrity is now applied to all nominations and could lead to exploration of the application of authenticity to natural properties;
c) will require proper management arrangements and legal
or other adequate protection prior to inscription;
d) may encourage nominations of mixed properties;
e) and asked the World Heritage Committee to continue to
explore the future effects of the merging of the criteria on the operation of the World Heritage Convention."
So the encouragement of "Mixed Properties" IS mentioned but only as 1 of 4 reasons

This ICOMOS Document "What is OUV" (which we have referred to earlier under the "OUV - What does it mean?" Topic) contains discussions about "Historical Value", "Commemorative Value" and Aesthetic Value" etc (without referring to their progenitor, Riegl by name - though he seems to have developed the ideas of John Ruskin - see It may be of interest to revisit it!