The idea of authenticity and outstanding universal value are widely controversial in regards to world heritage sites. UNESCO, the organization that approves and regulates world heritage sites, puts forth these two criteria that must be met for any landmark to become a recognized site. Authenticity refers to the originality of any heritage site or artifact. Outstanding Universal Value, or OUV, refers to the amount of stakeholders of a given site. The problem lies in the interpretation of these requirements, which ultimately leads to disputes over the definition of both these ideas, and what use they serve in considering world heritage sites.
Authenticity is still a controversial idea because many do not agree with the guidelines that are implemented into the criteria. In 1977, the operational guidelines were revised so that authenticity does not exclude the modifications of heritage sites that were necessary to keep its structural integrity. These guidelines also include any additions to the surrounding area of a site. For instance, the Historic Centre of Tallin was inscribed to the World Heritage List in 1997. On the UNESCO website, it states that the town exhibits medieval structures that were built in the 13th century. This was the main reason for it being recognized as a World Heritage site. It also states, however, that the buildings that were built around the town in the 19th and 20th century “form an integral part of the historic, urban fabric round Tallinn Old Town.” This means that a site does not have to be completely from the time period that it represents.
Similarly, the idea of OUV is not accepted by many because its literal translation means that a site’s value is embraced by everyone. This is an impossible measure to fulfill, obviously, because I don’t care at all for sites in other countries, and I don’t have much stake in the ones in this country either. It is also safe to assume that there are many others like me, so this idea is ridiculous to begin with. What UNESCO does then, is judge the value of a site by its significance in the area that the site resides. The Statue of Liberty, for example, is valued by most Americans for its symbolic representation of our fight for freedom. An American will find that their stake in the statue to be far greater than a foreigner’s stake, which is why it is a world heritage site. Also, according to the English heritage website, representatives of a site that is to be considered for world heritage status must submit a statement of OUV. There are statements still waiting to be open for consultation and there are those that have already been approved like the statement for the Royal Botanic Gardens.
These two ideas raise questions on their importance in determining what sites become world heritage sites because they are not completely defined. The overall idea of world heritage is a cultural and social concept. We’ve recognized sites that are significant historically because we crave the symbolism, but more importantly the romanticism of it all. We want to preserve the culture and traditions of our ancestors because they defined them as a people. This, in turn, defines us as well. There is something romantic about clinging to the past, and preserving the spirit of our people. Our past struggles and triumphs live on because of the care we take in passing them on; so if, for any reason, our heritage is disputed because of a technicality in the criteria, then it devalues the process entirely. Until we are able to generate an accepted consensus for deeming sites as world heritage, we will continue to argue over the value of each site and of its importance.
Ultimately, OUV and authenticity are criteria for world heritage because they are important in preserving culture and tradition. The meanings of these ideas are still disputed, but they are significant to the process nonetheless. A site may lose authenticity through modifications, but that shouldn’t matter for it to be considered world heritage. It is the symbolism of that site that actually matters because it is what’s really being preserved. Even though some may not find value in a site, it is the historical and cultural significance of that site that matters as well. Whether we agree or disagree with the methodical process that UNESCO makes sites undergo, we should appreciate the fact that parts of our heritage are being taken care of and passed on to coming generations.