The Concept of Cultural Heritage

When people think of cultural heritage, they often think of art and architectural monuments. However, the concept is much broader than that.

It includes everything from tangible to intangible heritage like languages, traditions and even landscapes. We can understand and appreciate our own cultural heritage better by understanding the concept of culture as a whole.


Cultural heritage is the non-material characteristics of a culture: customs and practices, artistic expressions, beliefs, languages, folklore and traditions. It’s passed down through generations and provides a sense of identity and continuity.

Cultural boundaries aren’t always clear-cut: a painting or sculpture may be considered part of the cultural heritage of its country, even though it may have been created by an artist from another country. The same can be said for other objects.

Many cultural heritage organizations serve groups and communities that are often underserved by mainstream organizations in the arts and culture sector. Their mission statements and program activities reflect their community oriented focus. They also support a variety of cultural activities that are multidisciplinary in nature. They prioritize arts and cultural forms but also include community improvement and service activities.


The preservation of cultural heritage requires a partnership with the community that lives with it. The increased ability to travel has led to greater curiosity about the cultures of other parts of the world, fueling demand for monuments, languages, and traditions to be preserved. This tourism also helps to fund the preservation efforts.

UNESCO’s definition of cultural heritage includes both physical artifacts and intangible attributes that characterize and identify a society’s uniqueness. This broad approach acknowledges that heritage may support hegemonic cultural values as well as provide resistance to them. It also recognizes that contested history is an important factor in the interpretation of heritage materials and their presentation to the public. Consequently, it is recommended that IGOs should coordinate with nonstate armed groups that express willingness to preserve their own cultural heritage and make them available to the public.


The concept of cultural heritage encompasses tangible and intangible traces that are recognized by communities as part of their history and identity. Tangible cultural heritage may include monuments, buildings and archaeological sites but also historical documents, books and manuscripts.

Intangible cultural heritage includes dance, music and languages but also the knowledge and skills passed down through generations such as craftwork. It is often linked to a particular place and reflects the diversity of human experience.

Heritage is a dynamic process, and what was considered to be important at one time may not be valued the next. Heritage can be threatened by changes in values, war and conflict or by neglect. It can also be overexploited for economic gain such as when a tourist attraction negatively impacts the quality of life in a community.


Preserving cultural heritage is essential to sustaining traditions, historical knowledge and identity. It can also strengthen communities’ ability to recover from disasters. UNESCO promotes this by fostering intercultural understanding and by drafting international conventions to protect heritage. Unfortunately, the protection of heritage sites is sometimes jeopardized through illicit trafficking and terrorism-related destruction, as well as natural degradation.

Climatic change is another threat, with gradual changes in temperature, precipitation, atmospheric moisture and wind intensity, as well as sea level rise (SLR) affecting both tangible and intangible heritage. This includes the deterioration of paper-based documents. The Book Bunk Trust is tackling this by developing a tool to digitise and preserve manuscripts, which will make them more accessible for researchers. Other threats include conflict, unsustainable tourism and neglect.


Whether it is intangible or tangible, cultural heritage plays a vital role in connecting individuals to their identity and culture. It inspires students to study more about their cultural history, and also gives them an opportunity to learn from others who have different cultures. This is one reason why non-profit preservation advocacy organizations like San Francisco Heritage have seen their membership rise over the last several years.

As the globalization of heritage continues, the need for a more holistic approach is becoming more apparent. This is evident from the UNESCO 2015 policy on World Heritage and Sustainable Development, which takes into account heritage as part of broader environmental, economic and social challenges. This approach can help to transcend the paternalism that has defined past development paradigms and support more inclusive approaches with culturally sensitive, self-determined development at their core.

Related Posts