The Concept of Cultural Heritage

cultural heritage

Cultural heritage stretches from small artifacts to entire historic cities. It also includes the social and natural environment in which a city or other area thrives.

A core issue in heritage policy concerns the tension between universalism and cultural specificity. Universalists tend to argue that cultural objects contribute to a larger human culture, justifying consequent rights and permissions.


Cultural heritage is a complex and evolving concept that includes both physical artifacts and intangible attributes of societies. It is closely tied to personal and group identity, and is reflected in the myriad ways that people interact with cultural heritage through behaviors such as tourism, preservation, education programs, scholarly research, and political policies.

For example, some scholars have argued that cultural heritage is inherently inalienable, as it forms an integral part of the culture that makes up a people and gives them a unique identity. This view of heritage has led to the emergence of concepts such as cultural patrimony and “outstanding universal value” that have become commonplace in international law and policy (Merryman 1986; Appiah 2006). It has also raised questions about how heritage is defined, including who constitutes a culture and how to determine when an object is considered to be heritage.


When referring to cultural heritage, it is important not to conceive of it solely in terms of tangible objects (paintings, prints and other works of art; monuments; buildings or archaeological sites). The term also includes towns, underwater cultural heritage and cultural landscapes.

The meaning of heritage is socially constructed and can change over time. Consequently, the concept is not susceptible to objective definition or evaluation. For example, artistic heritage can be interpreted in many ways: as a source of inspiration for artists (e.g. Japanese prints inspiring Gauguin paintings; African masks inspiring Picasso); or as a means to affirm identity and build loyalty among citizens.

In the case of heritage values, conflicting interests and priorities are reflected in the way different groups interpret heritage. Values attributed to heritage can confirm an in-group’s sense of belonging and its identity, legitimize or challenge existing power structures and intergroup relations, and foster or destroy cohesion within a community.


Archaeological specialists are increasingly concerned with how to bring their research and knowledge to life for the general public. This is why they are looking for new ways to communicate archaeological information in museums, popular cultural venues and other educational institutions.

The significance of heritage is a key issue that is at the heart of debates over ethics and heritage: it is the premise of many arguments about how and why archaeological objects should be preserved, protected or conserved. It also underpins discussions about the right to cultural freedoms (the right to “private” artifacts), the role of museums as repositories of antiquities, the rights of purchasers, finders and makers and the implications of heritage for contested histories and moral controversies.

Cultural heritage has a vital role to play in the development of societies. It contributes to sustainable economic development in terms of increased tourism and local jobs, and provides a sense of identity and continuity. It can also help build bridges across cultures, particularly in the aftermath of natural disasters and conflict.


Cultural heritage places often entail both the physical fabric and the intangible aspects of a place. As such, there are tensions between the different values ascribed to these dimensions of places. The emergence of indigenous cultural heritage as a focus of the preservation discourse has broadened this debate to include not only buildings, artifacts, and landscapes, but also stories, songs, styles, motifs, and practices. This expansion has exacerbated the already-fraught debate over the relationship between the concept of heritage and the idea of property.

For example, some who support cultural nationalism argue that nations have a special “national character” reflected in their heritage and thus a right to retain or restrict the import, export, or sale of that heritage. Yet this approach to heritage risks a misreading of the nature of heritage as something that exists independently of and outside of human culture (see section 2.3 on cultural appropriation). A more nuanced understanding of heritage as process may allow for both nationalist retention policies and recognition of the value of intranational diversity.

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