What is a World Heritage Site?

Standing Stones at Avebury

A World Heritage Site is a cultural or natural landmark that has been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). These sites are deemed worthy of preservation due to their universal value to humanity, both in the present and for future generations. Each World Heritage Site is held in collective trust, 'belonging to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located', and is legally protected by international treaty.

Heritage worth protecting

The protection of ‘World Heritage’ by international convention was preceded by the safeguarding campaigns of Abu Simbel (Egypt), the Borobodur Temple Compounds (Indonesia), and Venice and its Lagoon (Italy) in the 1960s.

The vulnerability of these sites to threats like pillaging, erosion, and construction, coupled with the power and success of international campaigns for their preservation, led to a convention to protect ‘common cultural heritage of humanity.’

Recognizing world heritage

According to the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, a site must possess ‘outstanding universal value’ and meet at least one of the ten Cultural and Natural criteria. These include diversity of human values, development of urban or settlement form, reference to history or living traditions (Cultural), or superlative natural phenomena, exemplifying geological, biological and ecological processes, or in-situ preservation of biodiversity (Natural).

However, there is an over-representation of  European and religious, in particular Judeo-Christian, sites. In 1994, the World Heritage Committee launched the Global Strategy for a Representative, Balanced and Credible World Heritage List, promoting a list reflective of the world’s cultural and natural diversity. This involved the recognition that ‘Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects’ and the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists include oral traditions, traditional craft production, performing arts, and rituals (e.g. Tsiattista poetic duelling in Cyprus).

Sites at risk

Unfortunately, World Heritage designation does not ensure a site’s safety; all six UNESCO monuments in Syria were destroyed or damaged during the current civil war, including the Palmyra Arch of Triumph and the Great Mosque of Aleppo. The World Heritage List, through its associations with the United Nations and the concept of collective heritage, is at once political and global.

Our world heritage

World Heritage Sites remind us of the potency of monuments and landscapes at local, national and global scales. They speak to the accomplishments of cultures past and present, and of their diversity, innovation, social relations, values and beliefs.

Natural sites often hold exceptional beauty, as well as discovery and variation in geology and biology. Both cultural and natural heritage sites are held in trust, due to their meaning and value to present and future humanity, with the belief that they also hold untapped potential for discovery, teaching, engagement.

Sites in our care

There are currently 29 recognised sites in the UK, and the National Trust care for places that are part of 10 World Heritage Sites. For example, Stonehenge and Avebury (inscribed 1986), a unique embodiment of continuous Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial and mortuary practices and monument building; the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape (2006), a testament to the sophistication of early, industrialised hard-rock mining; and the Giant's Causeway and Causeway Coast (1986), a volcanic site greatly contributing to the study of geology.

Waves crash against the Giant's Causeway, Co Antrim, Northern Ireland

World Heritage sites 

We care for special places across the UK. Find out more about the few that have been recognised as globally important World Heritage sites.