What is Cultural Heritage?

For some communities, cultural heritage is an integral part of every day life. For others, it becomes a focus during pageants and holiday celebrations.

The etymological root of the term heritage, patrimony or culture refers to an inherited legacy. Cultural heritage is also what a community preserves and transmits to its future generations.

What is Cultural Heritage?

Cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations. It comprises a wide range of material and immaterial elements, ranging from art and memorabilia to buildings and other monuments to the countryside and natural environment (flora and fauna) and even geological elements (scientifically known as geodiversity).

Because cultural heritage is to a greater or lesser extent unique and irreplaceable, it has come under increasing protection and preservation efforts, leading to phrases like “heritage of humanity” and the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The emergence of this concept is partly a result of the destruction and loss of cultural property during armed conflict, as well as the realization that preserving and conserving heritage may help societies develop a sense of identity and continuity in an increasingly globalized world. It also serves as a bridge between the past and the future, encouraging individuals to care about and pass their culture onto the next generation.

What is Tangible Cultural Heritage?

Built heritage is a physical record of a culture’s history and identity, and often includes monuments and sites. It can be movable, such as utensils from ancient times or real estate like the Parthenon in Greece. It also can be immovable, such as a temple or palace in India or a historic cathedral like Notre Dame in France.

Built cultural heritage can be incredibly symbolic as well, and it’s often used to honor great accomplishments of the past. This is true of places like Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and Robben Island in South Africa, which are designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Other important parts of cultural heritage are intangible, including the customs, traditions, values, languages and art forms that a culture uses to express itself. Intangible cultural heritage can be a bit more abstract, but it’s still very meaningful to people around the world and can contribute to sustainable development. It includes things like gastronomy, dance, music and craft.

What is Intangible Cultural Heritage?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines intangible cultural heritage as “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills – including the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated with them — that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.” This includes everything from oral traditions to dances, to handcrafts.

Intangible cultural heritage is often at risk of disappearing. Because of this, the General Conference of UNESCO adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003.

The ICH Convention focuses on protecting intangible culture by identifying and documenting it and creating an international inventory of it, ensuring that these treasured customs are not lost. Unlike tangible cultural heritage, which requires a physical object to be considered a heritage artefact, intangible heritage is community-based and is only recognized as such by the people who create, maintain and transmit it. This includes the tradition bearers themselves, but also local communities and NGOs.

What is Community Cultural Heritage?

When people think of cultural heritage, they often imagine art (paintings and prints), architecture, historic towns and buildings, museums and archaeological sites. However, cultural heritage is more than these tangible elements. It also encompasses living cultural traditions, which can be intangible and hard to define.

These include social practices, oral history and performing arts, traditional craftsmanship, representations, and rituals. They can be passed on through generations in a culture and shared between communities. Examples of community cultural heritage might be tango and flamenco dancing, Viennese coffee house culture, Azerbaijani carpet weaving traditions, Kabuki theater, or polyphonic singing in central Africa.

Many non-profit cultural heritage organisations strive to bring a sense of community to people through their work. This can happen at neighborhood fairs, county fairs, or in community cultural centers and native language schools. When these communities come together, they create a heritage community: “a unified group with awareness of the resource value of its cultural heritage and its potential to shape community resilience” (Davoudi et al., 2019).

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