Weekly Warm-Up: What is World Heritage?

Portions of the Berlin Wall stand today as the mural-adorned East Side Gallery. Photograph by Rae Allen, courtesy flickr. CC-BY-2.0
Portions of the Berlin Wall stand today as the mural-adorned East Side Gallery.
Photograph by Rae Allen, courtesy flickr. CC-BY-2.0

Your students know intuitively that places can carry meanings. Whether they’ve visited the Grand Canyon, the Eiffel Tower, or the place their parents met, they’ve undoubtedly felt the significance of standing in a particular spot.

What are some places that carry meaning? Why? Challenge your students to consider places that are important to them as individuals, as members of their community, and as citizens of the world.

Perhaps no organization is better known for recognizing sites than the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). UNESCO selects World Heritage Sites are deemed to be “of outstanding universal value.”

Some places become World Heritage Sites because they represent feats of engineering and architecture, like the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt or the Taj Mahal in India. Others, like Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, are recognized for their natural splendor. Still others are preserved as reminders of a dark and painful past. The Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau is one such example, reminding us of mistakes that should never be repeated.

What makes a site worthy of preservation? Invite your students to create a list of qualifications, and compare it to UNESCO’s own criteria for World Heritage Sites.

You and your students can explore a range of UNESCO World Heritage sites with our Mapping World Heritage activity. Encourage students to discover patterns among the sites and make connections with places they’ve been and values they hold.


New World Heritage Sites are being nominated all the time. The Berlin Wall, part of which still stands as the mural-adorned East Side Gallery, is often mentioned as a possible contender. Without international protections on the wall, developers have controversially been able to remove chunks of it.

Cultural sites are often treasured because they’ve remained nearly untouched since their historical moment. Does the fact that the Berlin Wall has been repurposed as an art gallery influence its value? How does this site fit with your students’ preservation criteria?

What other sites might your students add to the World Heritage list?


Nat Geo: Mapping World Heritage

Nat Geo: The Berlin Wall

UNESCO: World Heritage List Selection Criteria

UNESCO: World Heritage List

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