The preservation of cultural heritage is an important aspect of a society’s identity. It is also an economic asset and a tourist attraction. However, it can be difficult to quantify the value of cultural heritage.
Cultural heritage includes objects, beliefs, traditions, places, and artistic expressions. These elements help develop a sense of community and pride, and are a source of inspiration.
Cultural boundaries are not well-defined
The emergence of the concept of cultural heritage is based on historically changing values that are attached to monuments, buildings and natural landscapes. These values are influenced by culture, practices and (individual or collective) beliefs. These boundaries are important in determining the identity of individuals, communities and societies. Their loss during conflict and disasters can be devastating.
The implication is that cultural heritage needs to be protected and maintained. However, this is not an easy task. It involves a proper calculation of the costs and benefits. These costs can be economic, environmental or social. There are also intangible nonuse values that must be taken into account. These can be estimated by using techniques such as revealed and stated preference methodologies, which were originally developed to assess intangible benefits. This can help to determine the appropriate level of investment in cultural heritage assets. This can be done by estimating the benefits that society derives from these assets and comparing them with the costs associated with their maintenance and protection.
Cultural heritage is not a set of objects or traditions from the past
The cultural heritage of individuals, communities and societies is fundamental to their well-being. It shapes their identities, beliefs and values and guides their decisions. It also provides them with a sense of continuity and identity, especially following conflict or disasters. It is important that this heritage be recognised and protected as a human right.
It includes practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills – and the instruments, objects and cultural spaces associated with them – that make up the intangible heritage of communities and groups. It can be a powerful source of pride, and those with strong links to their culture feel more empowered and capable of dealing with challenges.
Traditionally, cultural heritage was divided into tangible and intangible heritage. However, the contemporary notion of heritage is broader and more complex. It requires a more holistic approach to its conservation and preservation. This includes addressing issues such as sustainability, authenticity, tourism and nostalgia, dissonant/negative heritage, rural and urban heritage, and the relation of heritage to religion.
Cultural heritage is a process of memory and oblivion
Cultural heritage includes physical artifacts, like works of art, music, buildings and monuments; as well as intangible attributes such as aesthetic and spiritual beliefs, traditions, and oral cultures. These are passed on through generations and define the characteristics of a society. This heritage can be both a source of pride and an identity marker for the future.
However, cultural heritage is also a product of selection: human societies are constantly choosing what should be remembered, preserving certain aspects of their culture and forgetting others. This process is accelerated by societal changes and the growing influence of globalization, which makes it easier to travel and experience other cultures.
As a result, the concept of cultural heritage is evolving and has become more flexible in its criteria for preservation and recognition. The idea of a “right of initiative” is slowly taking hold, meaning that the public can apply to protect an item on their own rather than waiting for a government agency to do so.
Cultural heritage is a source of pride
When we think of cultural heritage, we often think about museums, monuments and other buildings and artifacts that have a symbolic, historic, artistic or aesthetic value. Today, however, the concept is broader and includes also places, towns and the natural environment.
People who work with cultural heritage typically come from an academic background – think archaeologists, art historians and sociologists. Their skills are critical to the preservation of cultural heritage, but they must be complemented by management training in order to ensure sustainable outcomes.
Those who feel a strong connection to their cultural heritage are more likely to identify with the country and the world in which they live, as well as to be more empowered to tackle current challenges. Efforts to bring more rigour to the estimation of the intangible as well as the tangible value of cultural heritage can play an important role in this respect. This is why the 2011 thematic report of the Special Rapporteur focuses on promoting the right of access to cultural heritage.