‘World Heritage’ site selection is Eurocentric – and that shapes which historic places get love and money

The April 2019 fire that engulfed France’s Notre Dame Cathedral, in Paris, led to an outpouring of grief and introspection.

Historians explained how the 800-year-old church had survived political upheaval. Theologians examined its “secret life” and symbolism and architects recounted its structural changes through the centuries.

But not all cultural landmarks – no matter how beautiful or inspiring – similarly tug at the heartstrings of people worldwide. On the same day Notre Dame burned, online commentators observed, flames also consumed part of the 1,000-year-old Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

The world’s response: virtual silence.

My research on UNESCO World Heritage sites sheds light on why some cultural relics are beloved, while other splendid monuments remain relatively unknown.

UNESCO World Heritage

Since 1972 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has kept a list of places revered for their “outstanding universal value.”

Famous examples include the Sydney Opera House, in Australia, the Incan city of Machu Picchu, in Peru, and Italy’s Villa Romana.

Inclusion on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, which recognizes both natural and human-built places, brings publicity and increased tourism. It also comes with financial, scientific, educational and cultural assistance to help countries conserve their World Heritage sites.

The 193 countries that signed the 1972 UN agreement that gave UNESCO this responsibility have committed not to endanger, directly or indirectly, their own heritage sites or those of another nation.

The French scholar Anne Gombault believes that Notre Dame stirs global fervor, in part, because it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“World Heritage Sites arouse emotions and emotions reveal shared values,” she wrote in The Conversation on April 16, 2019. “Such emotions were on the faces of all those gathered in front of Notre Dame” as it burned, and in “the flood of heartfelt sentiments on social networks,” she added.

The burnt interior of Natre Dame cathedral, in Paris, after an April 15 fire. Philippe Lopez/Pool via Reuters
According to UNESCO’s website, World Heritage sites “belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.”

In practice, though, what is considered worthy of World Heritage recognition is not equally distributed across countries. According to my research, UNESCO disproportionately reveres the cultural legacies of former European empires.

My 2014 analysis of UNESCO World Heritage sites found that Italy and Spain had 114 of UNESCO’s 695 designated cultural sites. That’s two relatively small European countries – home to just over 1% of the world’s population – with almost 9% of its sites of “outstanding universal value.”

In comparison, 25 countries – including the Dominican Republic, Papua New Guinea, and Mongolia – have just one UNESCO cultural site each. Ireland, Saudi Arabia and 16 other countries have two each. Seven countries, among them Jamaica and Moldova, have no UNESCO-designated sites at all.

Even UNESCO-designated sites located outside of Italy, France and Spain reflect a preference for these countries’ grand imperial histories.

Excluding cultural sites located within France, Greece, Italy and Spain, I analyzed the descriptions of the remaining 536 sites for references to Spanish, French and Italian or Greco-Roman influence. I searched for words like “Roman,” “Baroque,” “Classical,” “Gothic” and other terms commonly used to describe historical Western European architectural styles.

I found that 31% of UNESCO-designated cultural sites not located in Italy were celebrated for their Italian influence, including 50 of Eastern Europe’s 79 designated sites. Another 23 Eastern European UNESCO sites boasted French influence.

That means all but six of Eastern Europe’s UNESCO-designated cultural monuments are celebrated for their Western Europeanness.