What is Cultural Heritage?

Cultural heritage is a wide concept that encompasses many things. In general, it refers to monuments, buildings or groups of buildings that have outstanding universal value from the perspective of history, art, architecture, aesthetics, ethnology and anthropology.

It can also be intangible, like languages, traditions, cuisines and customs. The preservation and sustainability of this heritage is a complex issue that calls for multidisciplinary approaches.

Defining Cultural Heritage

Cultural heritage encompasses a wide range of items and traditions. The UNESCO convention defines it as “the physical and intangible attributes of society inherited from past generations.” Physical artifacts may include works of art, monuments, historical buildings or archaeological sites. Intangible attributes, such as language, music and dance, characterize a culture.

It is important to remember that culture is fluid and constantly evolving. The way a piece of heritage is defined changes over time as values change and the meanings of an object or tradition shift.

As the world becomes more connected and travel is easier, people want to learn about other cultures. This curiosity has led to a boom in tourism, which also helps fund preservation of cultural heritage. This has made it necessary to examine the broader definition of cultural heritage and how we go about saving it. A key part of a sustainable cultural heritage is community involvement. This includes providing visitors with a better understanding of a culture while also encouraging them to participate in traditional activities.

The Physical

The concept of cultural heritage has evolved over time to include the physical aspects of culture. This includes things like monuments, buildings, artifacts, and landscapes. These kinds of items often carry a very high level of cultural value and can be viewed as belonging to all of humanity.

However, they can also be vulnerable to a wide range of threats that are sometimes caused by humans and other times by natural disasters. This includes issues such as erosion, climate change, and the intentional destruction of sites such as Palmyra by terrorist organizations.

Intangible cultural heritage includes non-physical characteristics of a culture, such as customs and practices, artistic expressions, beliefs, languages, folklore, traditions, and even cuisine. This type of cultural heritage is not visible to the naked eye and can be difficult for people outside of a culture to understand. However, it is just as important to preserve as tangible cultural heritage. The good news is that recent technical breakthroughs are making it easier to record, store, and share intangible cultural heritage content than ever before.

The Intangible

The intangible aspects of cultural heritage consist of social customs, traditions and beliefs that characterize a society. These are often grounded in aesthetic and spiritual beliefs and may be passed down through oral traditions. They include art forms like music and dance, as well as rituals, knowledge about the environment and ways of preserving things. They also include the influence that physical objects and locations can have on one another. Think of the way that Japanese prints inspired Paul Gauguin’s paintings or the way Liberian homes built by enslaved Africans are based on neoclassical architecture.

These can be preserved and conserved by communities that have a stake in them, often with the help of tourism. They are important to a society because they are part of their identity and can be a source of pride. They are a living aspect of culture and are constantly evolving. UNESCO’s 2003 Convention encourages States to draw up and regularly update inventories of intangible cultural heritage, and to develop education, awareness-raising and capacity-building measures to promote their safeguarding.

The Importance of Cultural Heritage

Cultural heritage is a vital part of human culture, allowing us to learn from the past, connect with other cultures and develop an identity that gives us a sense of pride in where we are coming from. When people have a strong connection to their cultural heritage they are more empowered to deal with the challenges that they face.

It is also a source of income, which can be important for sustainable preservation of monuments, buildings and other cultural heritage “assets”. But how do we quantify the value of that? One way is to measure the nonuse value of heritage, which tries to capture the enrichment that comes from the fact that major parts of cultural heritage still exist. This is sometimes referred to as the intrinsic existence value of heritage. Another way is to measure the indirect use values of heritage, which try to capture the satisfaction that people get from experiencing cultural heritage (like walking in an historic city). Both approaches have their merits, but both need to be taken into account when assessing the value of different aspects of cultural heritage.

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