Cultural Heritage

Cultural heritage can be tangible, like an object or place, or intangible, like a tradition or belief. It can also include natural heritage, including flora and fauna, scientifically known as biodiversity.

UNESCO has catalogued more than seven hundred elements of intangible heritage—everything from Uyghur music to truffle hunting. But protecting such heritage remains challenging, despite widespread condemnation of attacks on them.

What is cultural heritage?

Cultural heritage refers to the physical artifacts and intangible attributes of society that are inherited by past generations. Cultural heritage can be divided into movable and immovable physical artifacts: paintings, manuscripts, musical instruments, costumes, buildings and archaeological sites. Intangible cultural heritage includes social customs, traditions, and practices that characterize a particular society. This is a broad category that encompasses things like tango and flamenco, Viennese coffee house culture, and the Azerbaijani carpet weaving tradition.

The cultural heritage of a society is an invaluable resource. It helps to develop a sense of community, inspires cultural awareness and pride, and strengthens a sense of identity and belonging. However, it’s important to remember that cultural heritage is not something to be preserved or taken for granted. People can have strong attachments to their heritage, but they should also be willing to let go of negative or false traditions and beliefs that are damaging to themselves or others. This is the only way to preserve their own and other cultures’ heritage for future generations.

How can we protect it?

Cultural heritage is at risk from a variety of causes. Benign neglect, natural disasters (like the earthquakes that wreaked havoc on historic buildings and galleries in Italy and Haiti), and climate change all threaten to destroy or damage our shared heritage. Rapid urbanization also poses a serious threat: temples, historic neighborhoods, and archaeological sites are often bulldozed for the sake of new construction.

In addition, there is the danger of illicit trade in cultural property—a huge problem today involving everything from small artifacts to entire cities and heritage parks. It’s important for individuals to know what is considered heritage and to not support unauthorized sales or auctions of cultural property.

It’s also a good idea to be a vocal advocate for heritage protection—interfacing with governmental and non-governmental organizations that work on behalf of cultural preservation. And to educate children so that they value and respect their own cultures from an early age. That way, they’ll be less likely to become victims of destructive traditions or false beliefs that don’t serve them.

Why is it important?

Cultural heritage provides a window into the diversity of human creativity. It is an integral part of individuals, communities and societies. It shapes their identities and is key to their well-being, decisions and actions.

The loss of cultural heritage can have a profound impact. Benign neglect, major natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes, fires) and climate change threaten archaeological sites, art galleries, museums and historic buildings as well as living cultural traditions around the world.

Preservation efforts require a diverse range of expertise and disciplines. Physicists, material scientists, engineers, archaeologists and historians are often involved in the conservation of physical sites. For intangible heritage, folklorists and ethnographers are essential, as are social workers and community organizers. Finally, digitisation and inscription tools like Transkribus are key for making cultural heritage more accessible to the public. This can help people better understand and appreciate it, and thereby support its sustainable protection. This is how we can guarantee the cultural heritage for future generations.

How can we sustain it?

There are many ways to sustain heritage, including encouraging the stewardship of culturally significant landscapes, structures, and sites, and supporting intangible traditions, such as oral histories, dance, music, and theater. Cultural heritage preservation efforts should strive to be inclusive, embracing diversity and providing accessible experiences.

In addition, the stewardship of cultural heritage should be environmentally sustainable, as many cultural sites are prone to climate change related hazards and natural degradation. Adaptive conservation practices and building resilience in historic areas through culturally sensitive reconstruction are crucial for sustaining heritage.

Finally, cultural heritage preservation can be an important tool for peacebuilding. UNESCO’s work on conflict and cultural heritage, for example, has helped to highlight the role of culture in achieving sustainable development goals. Likewise, the preservation of cultural heritage contributes to social and economic cohesion in communities torn apart by war. The destruction of the mausoleums in Timbuktu and other acts of cultural oppression should be a reminder of this.

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