The best of the best: positing, measuring, and sensing value in the UNESCO World Heritage arena
Christoph Brumann (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle)
Paper short abstract:
This paper analyses how "Outstanding Universal Value" – the indispensable quality of a World Heritage site – is constructed by the UNESCO agencies. The myth persists that "OUV", however resistant to definition, it is a tangible quality that can be felt on site.
Paper long abstract:
The UNESCO World Heritage Convention of 1972 is one of the most widely ratified international treaties, and the World Heritage label has been conferred upon almost one thousand cultural and natural sites in 160 countries, with substantial consequences for tourism, national and local pride, the flow of development funds, and conservation efforts. Central to the World Heritage project is the idea that some sites have "outstanding universal value" so that they rightfully belong to, but must also be taken care of by, humanity as a whole and therefore deserve a place on the illustrious World Heritage List. How have World Heritage institutions gone about detecting universal value, particularly for the cultural sites where our cultural relativism of anthropologists would expect any such effort to fail? Based on participant observation of World Heritage Committee sessions and interviews with key actors, the paper will show that none of the considerable efforts to capture OUV more precisely has produced a truly operational definition. Instead, a relative angle is encouraged by prescribing a comparative analysis for each candidate, showing it to be as worthy as already listed sites and superior to possible similar candidates. None of these logics is consistently applied, however, and when a case is not decided by political lobbying anyway, expert bodies and Committee delegates often resort to intuition. Ethnographic observation reveals key actors as subscribing to a mystical ideology - at least at some sites, everyone can feel the presence of OUV.
Generating value and valuation as collaborative practice