Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

The World Heritage List: interview with Jasper Chalcraft

Jasper Chalcraft explains how the world heritage label evolved and provides insights from his research in Tanzania.
Unesco’s World Heritage programme has undoubtedly been successful. There are now, in 2016, around 1,052 World Heritage sites. The vast majority of those still remain in Europe and North America though. So the questions to be asked whose World Heritage is this? Which world are we actually talking about? If we were being generous about World Heritage we would say that its success is due to the way it promotes clear management plans and structures for dealing with issues around World Heritage sites, potential World Heritage sites. If we are being less generous we could say that World Heritage is more about place branding.
In other words, nations who have to nominate sites choose to promote some sites over others, some historical periods over others, sites belonging to particular groups rather than others in order to promote certain places and spaces for either international tourism or nationalist majority identity narratives. And if we’re taking that view, World Heritage is popular for all the wrong reasons. I say all the wrong reasons, because actually when we look at the world Heritage Works for tourism it very rarely seems to do so in favour of local communities.
And I could cite a number of examples, most of Tanzania’s World Heritage sites, which I know very well, serve an international safari market but they very rarely serve the local communities that live in and around them. Things have changed a little bit recently, with Ngorongoro conservation area but broadly speaking, we can make this generalisation. The World Heritage project works through a committee that has practises that are rather opaque. In other words, quite often the choices as to what actually becomes World Heritage are open to political processes. Big countries pushing middle countries to vote for their particular nominations and a bit of backscratching.
Too often we see that rich countries mobilise their resources in favour of presenting the kind of heritage they want to show to the world. And as part of a place branding exercise this seems to be very instrumentally mostly done for international tourism. This is not necessarily in the favour, either, of local communities or local community economies or necessarily in terms of representing their particular pasts. So a broad analysis for example, of sites that are on the World Heritage list because of their ancient values will show you that most of those sites ignore other histories and other stories, especially from the more recent past. In other words, we’re privileging one set of historical values over another.
So the popularity of UNESCO’s World Heritage then, is in it’s malleability, in the way that particular nations can manipulate it to represent their ideological views of the world and also their place in the international world order. Whilst I’m broadly critical of World Heritage, we should note that it has moved beyond its earlier Euro-centrism. For example, World Heritage was criticised in the early days for being really a list of churches and castles. That changed in 1992 when they brought in the cultural landscapes designation. This was specifically in order to get countries from Austral-Asia and from the African continent to be able to nominate sites, as they were considered to have less built heritage.
Then in 2003, UNESCO diversified further by including intangible practises, beliefs, and performances as a kind of World Heritage. And this has enabled a much bigger diversification of the kind of things that can be considered global patrimony. In reality though, it’s quite hard to see how listing objects and practises and beliefs actually helps preserve them. Partly because of course, they’re now so very numerous it’s hard to keep a handle on what actually is or isn’t heritage. Perhaps everything is heritage.

Jasper Chalcraft, from the University of Sussex, talks about the World Heritage list.

Jasper Chalcraft questions the role of the World Heritage list with regards to local communities. He points to two threats:

  • Branding strategies aimed at attracting tourists can be to the detriment of people living near the site.
  • Nationalist ideologies using the label to promote their particular view of the past.

In addition, he explains UNESCO’s attempt at broadening the framework in order to move beyond a Eurocentric view of heritage:

  • In 1992, with the introduction of the cultural landscape designation.
  • In 2003, with the inclusion of intangible practices within world heritage.

“Perhaps everything is heritage”

Jasper Chalcraft ends his talk with this provocative statement, suggesting that expanding the concept may dilute the meaning of the World Heritage list.

Do you think extending the understanding of what is heritage beyond built heritage is an effective way to establish a more inclusive heritage policy approach?

This article is from the free online

Cultural Diversity and the City

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now