Cultural Heritage Law

cultural heritage

Cultural heritage includes both physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a society. These characteristics are what make up unique communities. They are what defines them as such, and they must be protected.

Throughout history, monuments and other cultural property have been destroyed or damaged during conflict. This is a problem that needs to be addressed.


Cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a society that are inherited from past generations. It is the basis for cultural identity and includes a sense of belonging to a community and its natural surroundings.

It is a collective experience and can include both the tangible (something material you can touch, like art or monuments) and the intangible (beliefs and practices that can’t be seen, but are important to a society, like dance or music). All peoples make contributions to culture and heritage. Cultural heritage is universal and must be conserved for all to enjoy.

Intangible cultural heritage includes: rites, rituals and ceremonies, indigenous knowledge, social customs and traditions, arts and crafts, languages, architecture, historical places, traditional clothing, food and drink, calendars, sports and religious and scientific traditions. It also includes a country’s natural heritage, such as landscapes and ecosystems. Cultural heritage also includes the historic buildings, archaeological sites and works of art that characterize a place.


A culture’s heritage can be anything a society regards as important, from buildings and art to traditions, language and stories. This can be intangible (like beliefs and rituals) or tangible (like artwork, machines or books).

The term ‘cultural heritage’ can seem quite broad, as there are infinite facets to a culture. Moreover, these facets can influence each other across cultural boundaries. For example, Roman ruins were an influential source for modern Western architecture, and Japanese prints influenced Paul Gauguin’s work.

Cultural heritage can be conserved in museums, libraries or archives, where it is safe from deterioration and damage. It can also be digitised and made available to the public, which democratises heritage and enables new research or understanding of historical documents. A tool like Transkribus can play a crucial role in enabling this, as it allows for the digitisation and transcription of cultural heritage documents to be made accessible to the public. This enables these important records to be preserved and used for future generations.


Cultural heritage law involves protecting the intangible and physical aspects of a culture from destruction and from illicit trade. The legal aspect of this area of practice encompasses international agreements and domestic laws. For example, UNESCO conventions often govern the protection of world heritage sites and their associated artifacts. Domestic laws may cover archaeological preservation, repatriation and other matters related to the protection of cultural property.

As a lawyer, you will often advocate for the rights of those who wish to possess or own cultural heritage. You may also help develop legal strategies to combat illicit trading, which can involve online resale sites or questionable auctions.

Moreover, you will need to be well-versed in the law related to armed conflict and cultural property. This is a sensitive field of law in which your ability to communicate with nongovernmental agencies and international groups will be critical. You may need to address issues of sacrosanct sovereignty and the role of nonstate actors in achieving consensus on an international framework for protecting cultural heritage.


Cultural heritage is a shared asset that requires the active participation of the community to be sustained. Communities that have strong ties to their cultural heritage are more likely to maintain it and promote it to others, helping to keep it alive in an increasingly interconnected world.

Intangible cultural heritage comprises the practices, representations, expressions, and knowledge that individuals and groups recognize as part of their culture. It includes a wide range of activities and traditions such as dance, music, and food, along with rituals and festivals.

Nonprofit cultural heritage organizations serve a variety of communities. Their programs often blend program areas that many funders traditionally keep separate, such as education; food, agriculture and nutrition; human services; social science and ethnic studies; and religion. Many of these organizations work in partnership with other local, state, and federal agencies, as well as with private foundations. In addition, they have a great deal of experience working with the public and the media.

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