The Importance of Cultural Heritage

cultural heritage

Whether it’s the smell of an ancient perfume or the taste of a dish from your family’s kitchen, cultural heritage is all around us. It’s the intangible aspects of a culture that make up unique communities and contribute to sustainable development.

What people recognize as their cultural heritage can vary widely depending on their background, social status, education and personal identity.

What is it?

When we hear the term cultural heritage, we often think of artistic creations (paintings, prints, mosaics, sculptures), historical monuments and buildings, as well as archaeological sites. However, it is much broader than this, encompassing everything that gives identity to a community, including its values and traditions.

It includes both tangible and intangible heritage, with the latter being those that cannot be touched, such as customs and practices, artistic expressions, beliefs and values, language, folklore, cuisine, and more. Moreover, cultural heritage encompasses the way we interact with and live in our natural environment.

These elements are passed from one generation to the next and are essential to a society’s identity. As such, it is important to protect this heritage, which is why nations adopt laws and international conventions to prevent illicit trafficking of artifacts and the pillaging of archaeological sites.

In addition, many museums, archives and libraries have collections focusing on cultural heritage, with the emphasis on documenting the past for future generations. These include historical records, manuscripts, books and other written documents, photographs, maps, documents of cultural significance from different periods in time, artworks and even physical objects such as furniture over a hundred years old, as well as musical instruments.

While the focus on cultural heritage in libraries and academic institutions is largely due to the need to support research, this approach has also been used by many communities to assert ownership over their own heritage. This is especially true in indigenous communities where heritage has a direct impact on the quality of life and survival. In fact, heritage is the basis of culture and identity – without it people do not have a sense of who they are, what they believe in, where they came from, and how they should act in the world.

Tangible Heritage

The physical elements of cultural heritage can be seen and touched – think the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, or the Great Wall of China. These are the tangible aspects of cultural heritage that we see and appreciate in museums, art galleries, and historic sites.

Intangible cultural heritage, on the other hand, cannot be touched and includes traditions, oral histories, oral and written languages, performances, crafts, symbols, and representations. These intangible elements of cultural heritage are a way for people to communicate with one another and define their identity. The UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, for example, includes activities like tango and flamenco dances, the Viennese coffee house culture, traditional weaving techniques in Azerbaijan, Arab chanting, Kabuki theatre, and horseback riding in Mali.

These cultural heritage sites and practices develop a sense of community, foster awareness, inspire a sense of heritage responsibility and pride, and connect to our shared history in a meaningful way. The preservation of these significant places and their stories is important for the future of San Francisco.

As the world becomes more interconnected, preserving and sharing cultural heritage will become more of a challenge. In the past, most people who worked on cultural heritage came from an academic background – think archaeology or art history – but now we are seeing an increase in need for management training, as well. People who work on cultural heritage need to be able to find funding, manage people from many disciplines, ensure the intended outcome is achieved and plan for the sustainability of their projects in the long term.

Ultimately, the definition of what constitutes cultural heritage is constantly changing. It is the result of a process that involves both remembering and forgetting, as humans constantly choose what to preserve for the future. This process can be influenced by transitions in government, social values, war and conflict, marginalization, etc.

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