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Oustanding Universal Value (OUV) - What does it mean?

Author Solivagant
#1 | Posted: 16 Jan 2009 07:12 | Edited by: Solivagant 
Ensignyoshi has questioned which sites should be removed for e.g. lacking "Universal Value". I would go further and question whether the term itself has any objective meaning which can stand up to rigorous analysis. I therefore set up this discussion thread for an exchange of views on how "Outstanding Universal Value" (OUV) should/could/has been interpreted, strange examples, developments in "case law" etc etc.

It certainly isn't a simple issue. The Convention establishing the scheme gave very little guidance and left it to the WHC from which emerged the 10 Criteria! But, as we know, these, despite (or even because of?) their repetition of phrases like "outstanding examples", "masterpiece", "important", "superlative", "exceptional testimony" have proven very "flexible" over the years both in terms of taking on board additional insights into possible meanings of the term but also in accommodating political and international pressures to dilute it.

One just has to look at the history of WHC decisions and the vast variety of T list and "aspiring" sites to realise that the concept can be interpeted in a myriad of ways. It is clear also that the WHC and ICOMOS/IUCN have had, and continue to have, problems with the phrase. 3 attempts at deconstruction I know of are
a. A UNESCO expert meeting in Amsterdam in 1998 This concluded that "the working group did not find a solution to the question what is OUV"!!
b. A paper produced by ICOMOS in 2005 prior to (yet another!) meeting to discuss the "meaning" of OUV -
c. A dissertation produced in 2005 by Bart J.M van der Aa (chapter 1 in particular)

Do forum members know of any other useful background papers about OUV?

Interestingly the Convention states that NOT being included on the list does NOT mean that a site "does not have an outstanding universal value for purposes other than those resulting from inclusion in these lists"! So it isn't even OUV per se which is being assessed/determined but rather OUV for a particular purpose ("preservation"?). And of course the 10 criteria for assessing OUV are not set in stone. The Convention states that they are "regularly revised by the Committee to reflect the evolution of the World Heritage concept itself". They may have only been "officially" altered once (in 2004) but a vast amount of "case law" interpetation has been accumulated around them.

As an example of changes in interpretation I particularly like the example of Stonetown Zanzibar.- In 1982 the WHC concluded that it "should not be considered further" but by 2002 it was accepted on 3 criteria!

And what of Schokland which Ensignyoshi suggests should be removed as not being of OUV? Well ICOMOS describes it as being part of "one of the greatest and most visionary human achievements of the twentieth century" and states that "on a world scale there is no comparable site" - High status indeed! There must be many other WHS which would struggle to justify such a description.

So where does all that leave us on what is supposed to be the most important determining factor as to whether a site should be inscribed?

Author elsslots
#2 | Posted: 16 Jan 2009 10:27 
One of the things that always amazes me about both the OUV and/or reasons for inscription is that often a number of reasons is given to underline why a site should be a WHS. As if 5 half-good reasons also are good enough.

I do believe that it should be possible to clarify in one sentence why a site is designated to be a WHS. This explanation should include both the Outstanding (the only place in the world where..., the highest ..., earliest..., etc.) and the Universal (why is it important to all humans in the world to save this site?) aspect.

However, often regional- or time-specific reasons are given (the only surviving wooden church in the southern Balkans from the 17th century...). This originates in the policy that state parties have to nominate their own sites. So they look around in their own country, and think "well, what do we have to offer"?". Ah, some nice old wooden churches. Doesn't matter if a neighbouring country has them too, or that there are wooden churches all over the world. They nominate their wooden churches and try to argue why they are so special.

But there could be another way around: stop nominations from state parties, and try to fill the gaps in the current list with thematic nominations. Which paleo-anthropology sites in the world are of OUV? Are the Omo Valley, Awash Valley, Zhoukoudian and Sangiran the Top4 sites to show the history of human fossils? Why is the Olduvai Gorge missing and are there no human fossil sites recognized in Kenya or Chad?
This would create new friction of course among all consulted scholars, but would add a new point of view that could improve the list.

Author EnsignYoshi
#3 | Posted: 18 Jan 2009 18:52 | Edited by: EnsignYoshi 
It is off course also a tricky question. For instance many christian monuments are included on the list, and I do deem most of them to be of universal value. But would the non-christian parts of the world also deem christian monuments as being of universal value?

universal value seems to me always subject to regional and other differences (for instance: religion, the west, englishspeaking countries,...).

What I'm trying to say is, somethimes you just have to accept that regional factors have a play in things. I believe on the tentative list currently shakespeare's hometown is included. But what did shakespeare ever do for the chinese for instance? Does that make it of less universal value. I think universal value should be more defined as in "important for large parts of the world". I think you'll rarely get a site which is deemed truely universal.

Author elsslots
#4 | Posted: 23 Jan 2009 12:12 
The news story about the US nomination of Mount Vernon (2010) also gives insight into how countries think:

"We had to make the case why Mount Vernon is of international significance. We couldn't use George Washington's significance and legacy. We had to look at the site itself regardless of Washington," said Dennis J. Pogue, PhD, associate director, Preservation, Mount Vernon Estate, who had the lead role in producing and assembling the 165 page nomination application.
"Mount Vernon is one of the best preserved sites of British colonization in America. And, we are uniquely qualified to represent that element of history," Pogue said.

Author Solivagant
#5 | Posted: 24 Jun 2011 04:28 | Edited by: Solivagant 
Reading through the Advisory Body evaluations for the 2011 nominations has reminded me just how arbitrary and subjective the assessments of "OUV" seem. The following paper of 2006 (WORLD HERITAGE: DEFINING THE OUTSTANDING UNIVERSAL VALUE J. Jokilehto) contains later "thinking" and examples on this subject than papers cited above

The subject also refers back to the Tangible/Intangible debate ( )
and to the issue of handling "cultural diversity" when defining "heritage" - another "hot topic" in heritage circles. See l_diversity.pdf

See also page 64 of Dr Rudolff's PhD paper which includes this comment on how the phrase "Outstanding Universal Value" got accepted
"historic sources prove that the phrase was first critically debated before the adoption of the convention. What is even more striking is that the consolidated draft debated by a special committee of government experts in April 1972 did not even contain the phrase 'outstanding universal value' but spoke of cultural and natural heritage of 'exceptional universal interest' (UNESCO, 1972e, 1). It was a draft amendment by the UK delegation that requested to substitute 'universal interest' by 'outstanding universal value' (UNESCO, 1972c). And it was accepted against the explicit protest of some other delegations, such as Nigeria which requested to delete 'universal' and merely leave 'exceptional interest' (UNESCO,
1972b) . One can question nowadays whether or not this was a wise move."

Author Solivagant
#6 | Posted: 30 Mar 2018 05:45 | Edited by: Solivagant 
When UK "pulled" its nomination of "Darwin's Landscape Laboratory" for the second time in 2010 it was accompanied by the following minuted request for "the World Heritage Centre to organize a meeting for deliberating on sites presenting Outstanding Universal Value, essentially on an associative basis."

I had lost track of what had happened on this but it appears that such a meeting did indeed take place in Warsaw during March 2012 . Titled "International World Heritage Expert Meeting on Criterion (vi)" It is documented in the following link -

It is a lengthy 192 pages, but that includes transcripts of presentations, notes of discussions and Powerpoint presentations and thus contains a degree of duplication which can be skimmed. Anyone interested in OUV and the Criteria which attempt to define it might find it of interest. It contains sections on both inscribed sites and upcoming nominations including
Old Bridge Area of the Old City of Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
AUSCHWITZ BIRKENAU German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp
Memorial Sites of the First World War in the Westhoek
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
The Rise of Systematic Biology
Mining Cultural Landscape Erzgebirge/Krušnohoří

Generally it comes to no very great conclusion - in particular, if UK hoped it might provide an green (or even amber) light for the Darwin site I don't think it does!! One's general impression is of a group of people trying hard to make logical sense of a set of criteria and case law which lack logicality!!
Points of interest for me included
a. The change over time in the wording of Criterion vi in an attempt to make sense of it
b. The degree of "Associative Value" already encompassed within the other Cultural criteria i - v
c. The statistics and some surprising specific examples of where Criterion vi has and has not been used - in both directions for what might seem to be very similar sites. E.g Why on earth for instance is Rila inscribed SOLELY on Criterion vi!!! Is a complex whose value consists only of being "i]considered a symbol of the 19th Century Bulgarian Renaissance which imparted Slavic values upon Rila in trying to reestablish an uninterrupted historic continuity[/i]" really of "outstanding" and "Universal" value!!
d. The "elephant in the room" to be avoided by not giving any feeling of regarding some cultures/beliefs as being of greater value and importance than others whilst still identfying and determining "Universal" value !!!
e. A potentially interesting concept of "Fortress Religious Buildings" introduced by a Lithuanian which unfortunately isn't well "exampled" and explained.

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 Oustanding Universal Value (OUV) - What does it mean?

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