What Is Cultural Heritage?

Cultural heritage is a complex set of objects and traditions that embody the history of a group or society. It includes both tangible and intangible heritage.

This type of heritage is often the source of national pride and allegiance. It can also be the inspiration for new artistic works and ideas — think of Paul Gauguin’s use of Japanese prints or African masks.

What is it?

When a person hears the term cultural heritage, they might think of artifacts like paintings, prints and mosaics or architectural monuments. However, the concept is much broader. It also includes cultural buildings, sites, towns, natural heritage, and intangible heritage – knowledge and skills that communities, groups and individuals recognize as part of their identity.

The definition of heritage has been developed and reinterpreted over time, and what might have seemed to be heritage to one group or individual may not appear to be heritage to another. This dynamic character is due to the fact that heritage consists of a set of values recognized by society, and it is this that creates different categories of heritage, according to UNESCO.

Cultural heritage is complex and it involves many people with different perspectives and interests. That is why it is important that information literacy programs include a discussion about contested history, conflicting narratives, social and economic issues and cultural imperialism.

Who owns the past?

The question of ownership is central to the study of cultural heritage. The word heritage comes from the Latin patrimonium, meaning ‘patrimony of the fathers,’ and relates to physical monuments or buildings (although it also includes intangible attributes such as social customs, traditions, values and beliefs). In this sense, the heritage we inherit may be owned by museums, art galleries, or libraries; it can be privately or publicly owned.

Nevertheless, it is not the case that ownership of cultural heritage automatically confers rights over the past. The heritage is owned jointly by the communities which shaped it, as well as those who benefit from its preservation and dissemination. This is the reason why many museums have responded to indigenous demands for the return of their cultural objects, recognizing that they have an interest in heritage that goes beyond mere historical documentation. Museums are thus shifting their curation practices towards a more flexible approach to the heritage.

How is it protected?

When most people think of cultural heritage, they envision artifacts like paintings, prints, sculptures and coins; historical monuments and buildings; and archaeological sites. But the term encompasses much more than that: it refers to everything that gives identity to a group of humans, including its beliefs and traditions, even if they are not physically present or visible.

Cultural heritage preservation is a broad and complex topic. It requires cooperation amongst many different sectors. It must involve the heritage, humanitarian and uniformed communities and include a full range of academic disciplines. It must also respect the needs of local communities and be based on a variety of international human rights standards.

For example, cultural heritage protection must focus on the rights of those who are displaced as a result of armed conflict. If this is not done, it could deprive them of their sense of belonging and hamper their future ability to rebuild their lives. It could also hinder the extension of a spirit of global solidarity and trust.

What can I do?

One important way to help is by advocating for the preservation of heritage. Another is by incorporating cultural heritage awareness into school and university curricula in such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, history, art history, and ethics, among others.

Preserving cultural heritage requires a wide variety of expertise, including conservationists, engineers, architects, geologists, hydrologists, and soil scientists. Other professionals—artists, conservators, historians, chemists, archaeologists, material scientists, and forensic anthropologists—are also involved in heritage preservation efforts.

Communities are crucial in heritage preservation as well. Historically, a group’s cultural heritage reflects its identity and may be considered an intrinsic component of its self-worth—itself worthy of being protected. However, the destruction of heritage by armed conflict often targets those identities in order to delegitimize them and undermine their existence. In addition to international support for recovery efforts, local and regional partnerships are vital for protecting heritage. For instance, sustaining cultural workers with remote stipends or fellowships may encourage them to stay and protect their collections even when the risks are high.

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