What Is Cultural Heritage?

Cultural heritage is made up of the monuments, buildings, works of art and practices that a society uses to define itself. But what is considered heritage can change over time, as the value of certain objects or traditions shifts.

Cultural boundaries are also not always well-defined. Think of how Japanese prints influenced Paul Gauguin’s paintings or how freed African American slaves built homes inspired by neoclassical architecture.

What is Cultural Heritage?

Cultural heritage includes both physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a culture passed down from past generations. Physical artifacts include works of art, literature, music and archaeological and historic buildings and sites. Intangible heritage consists of social customs, traditions and beliefs that embody a culture.

Intangible heritage can also be found in a culture’s architecture, dances and songs. Often, this is what allows people to identify with their culture and feel connected to it.

Cultural heritage has a complex history, and it is constantly changing. It is based on historically developing value systems that decide what should be preserved for future generations and what shouldn’t. This process of selecting which objects or traditions to preserve has shaped the world’s cultural heritage and continues to do so. The concept of heritage also raises issues such as contested history, censorship and identity. It is a subject that is served best by a multidisciplinary approach. Despite its complexities, cultural heritage can be understood as a powerful force in our lives.

What are the Benefits of Cultural Heritage?

Cultural heritage preserves tradition and shows us how the world has evolved. It inspires new ways of thinking and living, provides a sense of history and continuity, and fosters greater respect for diversity.

The benefits of cultural heritage are multifaceted and difficult to quantify. Among them are recreational value, which consists of the enjoyment derived from different aspects of a heritage site (e.g., a historical area may have rest stops, vistas, and shopping bazaars) and aesthetic value, which represents the enjoyment derived from a sensory experience such as visiting a historic city.

Another important benefit is nonuse value, or existence value, which represents the enrichment people derive from the knowledge that major parts of a heritage site still exist. It is the reason why people place a value on tigers and whales even though they are unlikely ever to see them, because if they were to disappear from the planet, people would feel impoverished as a result.

What are the Risks of Cultural Heritage?

Historically, cultural heritage has been the subject of a wide range of threats. This includes robbery, accidental destruction, illicit trafficking, and even deliberate destruction.

In addition to these direct risks, the intangible qualities of cultural heritage, such as a sense of identity and pride, can also be at risk. This is especially true when it comes to the broader impact of climate change on buildings with cultural value, such as heritage sites and coastal houses.

Fortunately, efforts to bring greater rigor to the estimation of economic and societal values attached to cultural heritage are helping society focus on the full costs of its destruction. For example, the purposeful actions of nonstate armed groups, militias, despotic governments, and invading armies against tangible cultural heritage inflict losses far beyond their physical destruction – they are akin to cultural and social genocide.

How Can I Protect My Cultural Heritage?

In a global world, protecting cultural heritage requires international cooperation, and there are many ways to support that effort. One way is to become a cultural heritage advocate—to speak out against theft and trafficking, as well as to educate others about the issues and encourage them to take action.

Another way is to work to uphold the international conventions that govern the protection of heritage, particularly in times of armed conflict. As a part of the obligation to respect the humanity of all people, an attack on culture is a violation of the law of armed conflict, and it is important for all parties in any conflict to recognize that.

You can also support governmental and non-governmental organizations that focus on protecting cultural heritage around the globe by donating or becoming a member. Finally, you can contribute to the preservation of a country’s culture by supporting local arts and crafts markets, which give community members pride in their heritage and inspire them to keep up traditions.

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