What Is Cultural Heritage?

The cultural heritage of a nation, community or group includes historic cities, monuments and works of art. It also includes the practices, customs and traditions that define a culture.

Outside of the arts, cultural heritage programming appeared most often in the education; human services; community improvement and capacity-building; and religion subsectors.

Cultural identity

Cultural heritage consists of all the tangible and intangible elements that a society selects for preservation and transmission over time. These may include art, monuments, historical buildings and towns, archaeological sites, traditional practices and natural landscapes. It also includes gastronomy, music and other forms of expression that define a community.

In the past, cultural heritage was considered a cost to society that needed to be subsidized by governments and citizens. Now, however, it is considered a resource that can provide income and contribute to sustainable development. This shift has resulted in an increased emphasis on research, and many museums have reshaped their collections to reflect this change.

There is now a broad range of approaches to the study of cultural heritage, from traditional ethnographic perspectives, to critical heritage studies, which seeks to understand the political aspects of heritage. These approaches offer useful analytical vantage points. They can help us develop a new and dynamic relationship between heritage, identity, and sustainability.

Sense of community

A sense of community is a fundamental characteristic of cultural heritage. It can include a sense of shared identity and responsibility for the heritage community’s heritage-driven activities, as well as a common interest in cultural heritage and its importance to society. These aspects can be developed through a variety of means, including objects, beliefs and traditions, artistic interpretation, and significant places.

Unlike physical artifacts, intangible cultural heritage is not constrained by the limits of time and space. It includes social customs and traditions, language, music and dance, beliefs about the natural environment, traditional knowledge, cuisine, and even a person’s appearance and style of dress.

A sense of heritage can also provide a connection to the past and one’s ancestors. For some individuals, this may inspire a desire to preserve their culture for future generations. The Council of Europe’s Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society (Council of Europe 2005) shifts the focus from objects to people, granting communities ownership of their heritage.

Identity and belonging

The concept of belonging is a complex idea that involves both identity and a sense of community. It encompasses the broader notion of social inclusion and is a necessary component for sustaining a functioning civil society that aspires to full cultural citizenship. In addition, it is a key element of human development and well-being.

Identity is the set of psychological, social, and civilizational values that define an in-group (or a person’s position within a group) relative to other groups. These values are used to justify the current position of a person or group in relation to other groups, increase in-group self-esteem, and shape in-group images.

Heritage conservation specialists must be aware of the power dynamics that occur in communities and in particular, the ways that they promote or detract from a person’s sense of belonging to their culture. These issues need to be addressed in order to prevent the exploitation of cultural heritage for personal, economic, or political gain.


While the concept of sustainability is often tied to the environment, it also relates to cultural heritage. It means preserving cultural objects and traditions while helping people experience them. This can include art, monuments, buildings, and other tangible objects as well as intangible ones like language or dance.

Many heritage specialists are seeking to move beyond utilitarian explanations to explore new ways to communicate archaeological information and objects to non-specialists. For example, they are using cognitive imagery to help people envision the past.

These organizations are remarkably prolific, serving communities across the country, including cities and towns; rural areas; and ethnic and immigrant groups. Moreover, their programming blends program areas that many funders traditionally keep distinct. For example, they sponsor cultural activities that are related to education; food, agriculture and nutrition; human services; religion; and community improvement and capacity-building. This approach helps to bridge the gap between heritage and sustainable development. UNESCO has taken this a step further by creating an official policy on the subject in 2015. (Kroesen and Darson 2013). This policy focuses on how to use heritage as an enabler of sustainable development.

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