Cultural heritage is a vital expression of the culture that makes up unique communities. It includes tangible and intangible elements such as traditions, customs, beliefs, language, fine arts, crafts, oral history, and social practices.
Unfortunately, many of these cultural assets have been destroyed by war and conflict. Illicit trafficking and pillaging of artifacts have also occurred.
Cultural boundaries are not well defined
When thinking of cultural heritage, many people think of art and archeological or historical monuments. But the concept is actually much broader. It includes anything that gives a group its identity. It may include traditions, history, beliefs and values. This is a vital part of human life and sustaining cultural heritage is important for individuals, communities and society.
In the past, cultural boundaries were clearer, but now people are interconnected in a world of rapid change. This can lead to a sense of community, but it can also cause issues like conflicting memories and identities. Jean Kohl, for example, is a 9-year-old girl with German and Korean parents. Her heritage is a mix of cultures and languages, which makes her unique in the world.
Outside the cultural sector, organizations sponsoring culture-related activities are largely in the education, human services and community improvement and capacity-building subsectors (table 3). They use these programs to foster the cultural dimensions of their constituents’ lives and help them become organized as groups.
Intangible cultural heritage
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines intangible cultural heritage as “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills, as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated with them that communities, groups or individuals recognize as a part of their Cultural Heritage”. These intangible aspects of culture are often at risk of disappearing. They include oral traditions, performing arts, local knowledge and traditional skills.
The UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage was adopted in 2003 and entered into force in 2006. This international convention complements the protection of tangible Cultural Heritage that is provided through the preceding Cultural Heritage Convention.
Many nations have adopted the UNESCO Convention for Intangible Cultural Heritage and have prepared national inventories, established a list of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding, and submitted applications for their inscription on the Representative List. In India, for example, garba dance and yoga are among the intangible cultural heritage practices that have been recognized by UNESCO.
Protecting cultural heritage
Culture is a complex set of objects, places and beliefs. These elements can be tangible (something that can be seen, like art or monuments) and intangible (customs and practices, languages, beliefs, and traditions). It’s important to protect cultural heritage because it is an integral part of communities’ identities and well-being. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of the threat to cultural heritage from trafficking and smuggling. Fortunately, there are some steps that can be taken to prevent this from happening.
These include developing an international system for certifying safe havens, and supporting nonstate armed groups that are committed to protecting cultural property in areas of conflict. In addition, there is a need to improve coordination between government agencies and nonstate actors, and better support funding, training and supplies for these groups. Cultural heritage is a global resource, and we all need to work together to ensure its future.
Sustaining cultural heritage
Cultural heritage is a collection of objects or natural environments that represent the history and lifeways of a group. The selection of which elements are preserved for future generations determines the trajectory of a group’s identity. The preservation of cultural heritage is a complex task. Benign neglect, devastating accidents, and major natural disasters can destroy historic buildings and museums and disrupt living traditions.
However, the preservation of cultural heritage is possible through careful planning and funding. This includes the development of sustainable cultural heritage organizations.
These organizations must be able to fund the preservation of their collections, while also providing educational and other public services. They must also be able to measure the economic benefits of their activities. Proper calculation of the full economic value of a tangible cultural heritage asset will help society make better decisions about investing in its protection. This is especially important in the face of purposeful attacks on a nation’s tangible heritage by nonstate armed groups, militias, or despotic regimes.