What Is Cultural Heritage?

cultural heritage

What constitutes cultural heritage depends on social and political circumstances that can vary over time and space. For example, what a museum, government, or scholarly community designates as heritage can change significantly over time and can depend on personal identity, education, privilege/marginalization, and other factors.

Cultural heritage refers to the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills that people identify as part of their culture. It also includes tangible and intangible elements.


The term cultural heritage is an umbrella concept that encompasses the myriad ways that people, communities, institutions and governments value and engage with manifestations of culture. This includes both tangible and intangible heritage, including historic places, monuments, artifacts, works of art, oral histories, traditions, knowledge and values.

Whether it is cultural heritage in the form of historical documents or other cultural objects, they are often fragile and can be at risk from many factors including war and conflict, climate change and unsustainable tourism but also natural deterioration. A tool like Transkribus helps preserve and safeguard cultural heritage by digitising, transcribing and preserving historical documents to make them accessible to researchers and the general public.

Intangible cultural heritage is comprised of the practices, representations, expressions, and knowledge – along with their instruments, tools and symbolic spaces – that communities, groups and individuals recognize as part of their heritage. This cultural heritage is constantly recreated in response to a community’s social, political and religious environment and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity.


Cultural heritage consists of the tangible and intangible representations that characterize a society’s values, beliefs and traditions. This includes artistic expressions, social customs, beliefs, rites and rituals, language, folklore, traditions, foods and cuisine.

It also encompasses the broader cultural legacy, including a city’s history and character. This heritage is vulnerable to all kinds of threats, from benign neglect and devastating accidents to natural disasters and climate change.

Often, however, the destruction of cultural heritage is intentional, with motives ranging from ideological and political to religious and economic. Ideologically motivated iconoclasm seeks to destroy the symbols and representational signs of a vanquished regime or religion in the name of purification and progress, while economically motivated destruction may involve the plundering of culturally significant sites and monuments for commercial gain. In both cases, these acts can be considered a form of cultural genocide. They wreak far greater damage than the mere loss of physical monuments and artifacts.


The concept of cultural heritage grew into a broader category with the documentary and analytical efforts of antiquarians, anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, and philologists. It has also gained traction with the community-based advocacy and occupational specialization of art collectors, museum curators, historians, and archivists.

Even a natural landscape can be deemed part of a culture’s heritage by virtue of its association with an important historical event, such as the plain of Runnymede where Magna Carta was signed in England. Likewise, art, architecture, and music can be considered cultural heritage if they have been passed down through generations.

Many governments, intergovernmental organizations, and nonprofit programs are devoted to safeguarding heritage. Benign neglect, devastating accidents, and natural disasters–along with global climate change–can threaten the survival of artifacts and historic buildings as well as the preservation of living cultural traditions. Efforts to bring more rigor to the estimation of the financial and broader economic, tangible, and intangible values of heritage are essential.

Sense of Belonging

Heritage affects identity by shaping people’s understanding of their own culture, history, and values. It also helps them feel connected to their cultural roots and creates a sense of belonging to their country or region.

Often, cultural heritage can be seen as an invisible bond that ties people together and brings them closer to one another. It can be tangible, such as artifacts, locations, and objects, or intangible, like traditions and beliefs.

Whether in its physical or natural form, heritage contributes to sense of place by giving individuals a network of references that help them situate themselves in both the past and present. By applying theories of social capital, it is possible to see that engaging with heritage can aid social sustainability.

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