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Harmonising heritage in the Nordic countries

A conception of Nordic heritage in the context of the world heritage list has evolved to embrace the countries’ built, cultural and natural heritage.

Roskilde Cathedral.png
Roskilde Cathedral in Denmark, a world heritage site, was built in the 12th and 13th centuries. Scandinavia’s first gothic cathedral to be built of brick, it encouraged the spread of this style throughout northern Europe (Photo: Jebulon, Wikimedia Commons).



Since the 1980s the Nordic countries have worked together to produce a conception of Nordic heritage in the context of the world heritage list. This process, called ‘harmonisation’, is located in the traditional context of cooperation between Nordic countries as illustrated by the formation of both the Nordic Council (1952), and the Nordic Council of Ministers (1971). In two phases within this process of harmonisation the conception of Nordic heritage evolved to embrace built, cultural and natural elements.

The issue of the universal representativeness of the world heritage list has been at the heart of the implementation of the World Heritage Convention since its beginning. To improve the geographical, typological, chronological and thematic representativeness of the world heritage list, the World Heritage Committee and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) adopted a series of measures from the late 1970s onwards.

These measures included urging States Parties to submit tentative lists to be used as working tools when deciding on new inscriptions to the world heritage list; conducting comparative studies on various types of heritage; developing a broad analytical framework called the Global Study, initiated in the mid-1980s; and encouraging States Parties from the same cultural region to harmonise their tentative lists and nominations. The harmonisation method was first employed in 1983 in a meeting aimed at integrating tentative lists of certain western European countries, and nine such regional harmonisation meetings were organised by ICOMOS between the years 1983 and 1987. One of these meetings was held with Nordic heritage professionals in Bergen, Norway, in 1986.

Within this context of regional harmonisation with regard to world heritage nominations, it is possible to identify two distinct phases where Nordic countries attempted to articulate a specific conception of Nordic heritage. The first phase started in Bergen in 1986, and continued with two successive meetings held in Copenhagen and Helsinki in 1988. The beginning of the second phase dates back to the mid-1990s and relates to the Nordic Council of Ministers funded project, Nordic World Heritage.

Evolving conception

The objective of the mid-1980s meetings between the Nordic heritage professionals was to ‘arrive at a more stringent selection of properties for being proposed for inscription, in this way ensuring the coherence and credibility of the world heritage list’. While this first phase of Nordic harmonisation did not perhaps lead to any far-reaching conclusions about the common Nordic identity, there was at this point already some shared understanding about the distinct nature of Nordic cultural heritage within the broader context of the world heritage list.

Even though reviewed in the framework of a traditional art-historical typology, Nordic heritage was defined as being vernacular and regional, in other words significantly different from the ‘great monuments’ on the world heritage list. After the first round of harmonisation meetings, the various Nordic countries implemented different strategies when nominating world heritage sites. Norway already had four sites on the world heritage list, and did not propose any new nominations in the 1990s. Sweden and Finland became active soon after the harmonisation process: both nominated six sites to the world heritage list in the early-1990s. Denmark put forward three nominations in the latter part of the 1990s. All the sites proposed by the Nordic countries to the world heritage list at this early stage represented cultural, not natural heritage.

The mid-1990s project Nordic World Heritage aimed at responding to a national, regional (Nordic) and an international demand: to propose new Nordic areas for the world heritage list, and to contribute to Unesco’s current strategy orientations. The early 1990s marked a period of significant reorientation and self-reflection in the history of the implementation of the World Heritage Convention, most importantly involving the launching of the Global Strategy for a More Representative World Heritage List (1994). In line with the wider strategic orientations, the focus of attention concerning Nordic World Heritage was shifted to the interplay between nature and culture, which provided a convincing foundation for the articulation of common Nordic identity.

In the final report of the project, Nordic World Heritage (1996), the land rise which occurred during the last ice age, the long coastlines, the fjords, the archipelagos and the areas of shallow waters were identified as key elements of the Nordic natural environment, also regarded as decisive for Nordic cultural history. In addition, the widespread respect for traditional rights of local peoples was further highlighted as a key feature of Nordic heritage and central to the processes of heritage management within Nordic countries.

The Nordic World Heritage report identified 21 new areas considered as having the potential for outstanding universal value, only three of which were buildings. This marked a distinct change from the approach during the 1980s, which applied a more traditional art-historical typology to the inventory of Nordic World Heritage. This change not only reflected the changes in the definition of heritage which had been taking place in the international professional community since the early 1990s, but also the altered institutional setting in which the Nordic world heritage was now reviewed, bringing natural heritage authorities side by side with cultural heritage authorities. The project group’s task was to view the different national heritages as ‘an entity from a Nordic perspective’, and to ‘see beyond the national borders’. At least some participants of the project thought that the harmonisation work would end up in drafting a joint tentative list for all Nordic countries, a goal that has not yet been realised.

National framings

By engaging in the ongoing process of regional harmonisation of world heritage, the Nordic countries have rendered some of their national sovereignty in the world heritage system to the interests of the supranational. Nevertheless, it is hardly surprising that the imagined and practiced Nordic community of world heritage, has not presented any significant challenge to national framings of heritage, nor has it even intended to do so. During the first round of harmonisation, the Finnish heritage authorities, for example, emphasised that the joint Nordic list had only an advisory character and that, in addition to identifying cultural heritage that was characteristic of the Nordic countries as a whole, there was still room for sites ‘unique in each country’.

Since the second round of Nordic cooperation, and until 2016, 23 new Nordic sites were included in the world heritage list. Seven of these new inscriptions were natural sites and one was a mixed one. In other words, despite the focus on natural heritage in the Nordic World Heritage report, the majority of nominations since 1996 continued to be of cultural sites, even though it is important to note that cultural landscapes, combining cultural and natural elements, also fell within the cultural category.

These figures point to two conclusions. First, when actually nominating new sites for inclusion in the world heritage list, the Nordic countries were driven by a somewhat more traditionalist view of heritage than was outlined in the Nordic World Heritage report. For example, among the seven Swedish nominations that were put forward since 1996, only two were presented in the report. The others were nominated either ‘outside the box’ or, as in the majority of cases, based on older plans and commitments.

Second, even though addressing the culture/ nature imbalance of the world heritage list, the Nordic actions did not significantly differ from the nomination strategies of many other European countries at the time. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the European States Parties made the best use of the opportunities offered by the Global Strategy. The nominations from the ‘new’ categories of cultural landscapes, industrial heritage and modern heritage were dominated by the European countries. Often within the world heritage framework, balance in one area of representation has produced imbalance somewhere else (often Europe versus the rest of the world). Also the Nordic countries saw the categories of modern architecture, industrial heritage, cultural landscapes and natural heritage as an avenue for successful national nominations.

While a truly joint tentative list of future world heritage nominations for all Nordic countries seems unlikely to be realised in the near future, the Nordic cooperation continues, most importantly with the founding of the Nordic World Heritage Association in 2016. The main focus of the cooperation has shifted to sharing experiences of the implementation of the World Heritage Convention.

How common ‘Nordic heritage’ has been articulated in the context of the more recent world heritage nominations of the Nordic countries, however, seems somewhat ambivalent: some recent nominations explore the common Nordic theme widely, while others continue to frame heritage nationally. It is also worthwhile considering what will the increasing involvement of local communities in drafting updated national tentative lists mean from the point of view of Nordic framing of heritage. Even within an established regional framework of cooperation, national identity remains an important reference point.


Vahtikari, Tanja (2017) Valuing World Heritage Cities, Routledge, London and New York.

This article originally appeared in IHBC's Context 157 (Page 21), published in November 2018. It was written by Tanja Vahtikari, senior lecturer in history at the University of Tampere, Finland.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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