What is Cultural Heritage?

Cultural heritage is the backgrounds, traditions and artifacts that make you who you are. It doesn’t have to be big, but it can also be things like a family recipe or a tradition you do for Christmas.

The concept of heritage arose from historically changing values recognizing different types of monuments, buildings and natural environments as being unique and irreplaceable.


Cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that is inherited from past generations. Cultural heritage encompasses all aspects of a culture, including traditions and beliefs, languages, folklore and cuisine. It also includes places of historical and cultural significance.

Intangible heritage is harder to define, and can include everything from a culture’s oral traditions (the transmission of knowledge, stories, rituals etc. through the spoken word rather than written text) to the skills embedded in cultural and natural heritage artefacts, sites or monuments.

What one society recognizes as its cultural heritage can change over time, influenced by changing social values and political and religious pressures. It can even change within a single society as different groups or individuals take inspiration from each other, for example, when Japanese prints influence Paul Gauguin’s work or African masks are incorporated into Liberian homes built by freed enslaved people. The concept of cultural heritage can thus be highly contested.


Cultural heritage is more than just artefacts, buildings and monuments. It is also the way in which a culture is remembered and the ways in which people remember each other. This makes it crucial for the wellbeing of individuals, communities and societies.

It is this collective memory that gives heritage its enduring value. It helps us to understand the past and makes the present meaningful. It is the basis of identity and well-being and it shapes decisions and actions. It enables us to connect to each other and to the world.

It is this shared memory that enables students to develop a deeper connection with their own culture, and it allows them to connect more with peers who have different cultures. It is this sense of connection and community that can help to make students more aware of the need to protect monuments and natural cultural heritage for future generations. In this interconnected world, it is important that we do so.


When we think of cultural heritage, our minds tend to envision artifacts such as paintings, drawings, prints, mosaics and sculptures; historical monuments and buildings; or archaeological sites. However, today the term cultural heritage has evolved to include all evidence of human creativity and expression. It also includes intangible heritage, such as practices, traditions, representations, expressions and knowledge – like the polyphonic singing of the Aka people of Central Ethiopia – that communities, groups and individuals recognize as part of their culture.

Aside from preserving a sense of identity and continuity, cultural heritage can foster solidarity and social integration among members of a community. At the same time, it is a powerful tool to promote respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. When a community is displaced by war, terrorism or natural disasters, cultural heritage can provide a sense of home and a shared history. In addition, it can help to build trust and foster global solidarity.


Cultural heritage preservation efforts often seek to balance the interests of different stakeholders. For example, some works of art are considered part of a public collection even though they are privately owned. In these cases, the preservation effort has to find a way to ensure that the individual owner retains the right to exhibit or sell the work.

Other examples of tensions in cultural heritage preservation include how to weigh the value of an item against its perceived value to a specific community, and how to balance archaeological and historical values with aesthetic, religious or spiritual ones. In addition, a standardized definition of cultural heritage may not be readily accepted by all members of a particular community.

While governments and other organizations work to protect cultural heritage, it is ultimately up to individuals to support these efforts. They can do so by boycotting products that exploit cultural heritage, interfacing with governmental and non-governmental organizations, and participating in outreach events and programs.

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