Cultural heritage encompasses the expression of a community’s values and traditions. It includes tangible and intangible heritage, such as music and dances like tango and flamenco, traditional craftsmanship, representations, rituals, and knowledge and skills transmitted within communities.
It also includes places that are important to communities and their identity, such as villages, towns and the natural environment.
Cultural boundaries are not necessarily well-defined
There is a common misconception that heritage is just about monuments or buildings that can be physically seen. However, this view neglects the fact that cultural heritage is a web of social and moral meanings that are closely intertwined with identity and place-making.
It is not surprising that people have different opinions about what constitutes cultural heritage. For some, traditions may be a part of their everyday lives, while for others, they only become the focus during festivals or pageants. This is why a broad definition of cultural heritage is important.
Culture is not defined by a single object or tradition, but by the entire set of items, places, and even stories and beliefs that represent a shared experience. This can include both tangible and intangible heritage, from tango and flamenco to Viennese coffee house culture, the Mediterranean diet, Azerbaijani carpet weaving traditions, and Vedic chanting. These traditions can be shared across political borders and even between cultures within the same country or region.
Sense of community is a vital part of civic life
In a world of increasing mobility and accelerated change, a sense of community is something people have to work hard to maintain. In many communities, nonprofit cultural heritage organizations are an important part of this civic life.
They provide spaces where neighbors and friends come together to share a common history, traditions, struggles, and aspirations. They bring together families, local ethnic groups and immigrants, urban residents and rural citizens, and long-standing and newer communities.
Cultural heritage activities are often sponsored by a range of other organizations, including those working on education, human services, and community improvement and capacity-building. This programming reflects the fact that most heritage organizations are multi-purpose organizations that serve communities of diverse needs. They also reflect an understanding that intangible heritage is best interpreted by the communities for whom it is made, rather than by professional determinations of its significance. This premise is embedded in the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage adopted by UNESCO in 2003.
Cultural heritage organizations are remarkably prolific
Creating and maintaining a sense of community is a primary objective for many nonprofit cultural heritage organizations. They often do so by promoting and preserving cultural traditions, which vary widely among ethnic groups. These traditions may be expressed through a variety of mediums, including traditional dance and music performances and neighborhood festivals. In addition, they may be represented in the form of a native language, a specific kind of cuisine or musical style, a classical art discipline, or a sporting event.
Interestingly, the NCCS database also shows that other organizations outside the cultural sector sponsor a variety of cultural heritage activities (table 3). These activities most frequently appear in the education, human services, community improvement and capacity-building, and religion-related subsectors.
A review of the literature indexed in WOS indicates that research on cultural heritage is relatively prolific. However, this research focuses on a small number of authors and countries, with comparatively poor collaborative ties emerging from the data.
Cultural heritage organizations are important to the future
For many cultural heritage organizations, preservation and community promotion are very central to their mission. In fact, they often explicitly state this in their statements of primary purpose. This leads them to work in expansive ways, including embracing diverse forms of cultural expression—arts and festivals, traditions, languages and folklore, recreation and spirituality, cuisine, and history.
Even for archaeologists, who are the most devoted to archaeological conservation, there is growing recognition of the value and power of artistic expressions in helping them communicate their work to nonspecialists. They also realize that if the goal of heritage is to be sustainable, it must be multidisciplinary.
Many of the largest program areas for heritage organizations—education, food, agriculture and nutrition, human services and religion, and ethnic and religious studies—have strong connections to cultural heritage. This is one reason why heritage is so central to the sustainability of communities.