What is Cultural Heritage?

Cultural heritage brings to mind artifacts such as paintings and sculptures, historic monuments and buildings, archaeological sites and museums. It also encompasses natural landscapes that have been incorporated into the heritage of a people.

Many cultural heritage organizations serve a broad range of community needs. They often blend program areas that funders traditionally keep separate.


Cultural heritage is the legacy of human creativity, expressed in a combination of physical tangible artefacts (buildings, historic places and monuments, objects) and intangible culture, like languages, customs, traditions, values, beliefs, and mental imagery that connect people.

Creating and sustaining that sense of community is one of the primary goals of many cultural heritage organizations. It happens at neighborhood fairs and festivals, in national museums and folklife programs, at county and state historical societies and native language schools.

It also takes place in a process that every society continually engages in, choosing what of its past to preserve for the future, and what to let slip into oblivion. Properly calculating costs and benefits—intangible as well as direct or indirect use values—can help us decide whether to invest in cultural heritage. For instance, revealed and stated preference techniques developed for estimating the value of natural assets can be used to calculate the value of cultural heritage as well.


When the term cultural heritage is used, it usually refers to physical artefacts like buildings and historic places, monuments etc. as well as intangible attributes of a group or society like social values, traditions, customs and beliefs. It also covers all evidence of human creativity like literature, paintings and music.

In addition, cultural heritage encompasses the skills and knowledge related to artisan production. Initiatives that support young creatives in getting acquainted with centuries-old techniques and methods, can help preserve the knowledge that is vital to a community’s identity.

The concept of cultural heritage arose as a result of a long historical development in which different values were attached to monuments, works of art, buildings, natural world property and other aspects that constitute a people’s culture and history. Aesthetic, historic, scientific or other values are the basis upon which cultural heritage is recognised as something worthy of being preserved or protected. It can also serve as a symbol of a nation’s identity, or even its survival.


Cultural heritage is the legacy of tangible and intangible attributes inherited by a society. It encompasses a mix of natural landscapes, edified buildings and towns, artifacts, and social customs and traditions. Its recognition, management and preservation is normally entrusted to museums.

Cultural institutions are surprisingly prolific, serving cities, regions and towns; rural areas; traditional ethnic groups like African Americans and Native Americans; and newer immigrant communities. They offer a range of programs, such as community promotion, educational and recreational activities, and preservation or conservation efforts.

The purposeful actions of nonstate armed groups, militias or despotic governments in attacking tangible cultural heritage inflict losses that far exceed their physical destruction. Thus, an effort to quantify the economic value of such heritage becomes instructive for appreciating the full cost of such destructive acts, which are akin to social and cultural genocide. This is why the UNESCO Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage was initiated. It promotes international cooperation on the protection of cultural heritage.


The value of cultural heritage as part of a people’s identity and sense of belonging has, in the past, been difficult to quantify. Some objects have been able to be sold and their market price established, but the intangible quality that makes heritage a contributor to a society’s wealth has been more challenging to identify.

A variety of techniques are now available to recognize the values attached to heritage. The result is that it is now possible to measure the impact of heritage on a community’s social and economic development.

However, the challenge is to mobilize the necessary investment in order to revitalize the economy of old cities and restore their monuments and make them accessible to all. In the context of developing countries, where there are competing claims for government funding, it is crucial to determine how much a country can afford to spend on protecting its heritage and how this should be compared with the need for infrastructure like healthcare and education.

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