Cultural heritage encompasses features of continuing existence and past accomplishment recognized by a social group as a source of identity and pride. It may take the form of ancient archaeological sites and historic buildings, artifacts, museums, libraries and archives, traditional cultural practices, and more. The challenges of preserving and maintaining cultural heritage require a broad range of expertise and resources, from conservators, to law enforcement and architects to program managers. In addition to technical issues, cultural heritage preservation and management involves complex ethical considerations and political and moral dimensions.
The value of cultural heritage is rooted in the sense of connection that it engenders in individuals, communities and nations. In this way, it is an important source of inspiration and strength for people in times of crisis and conflict. It also provides a sense of place, and the memory of that place, that can help them overcome the hardships of modern life and chart a path toward a more hopeful future.
Nevertheless, cultural heritage is not a universally cherished concept. It is widely debated and contested. One position, known as cultural internationalism, holds that each culture contributes to an overarching human culture, and thus everyone has a stake in its heritage (Merryman 1986). This view finds support in many aspects of world law and policy, including the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention and the criterion of “outstanding universal value” in that treaty.
In contrast, cultural nationalists argue that heritage carries a unique and intangible sense of national identity and character. They use claims about the special character of cultural property as a basis for nationalist retention policies and the refusal of repatriation requests (see below).
The preservation of cultural heritage often involves balancing competing demands. To preserve the physical fabric of historic cities, for example, may require a great deal of money to restore buildings and monuments. At the same time, it is important to preserve the character and “sense of place” of these urban environments so that they can continue to attract visitors and foster local economic activity.
Preserving intangible cultural heritage is even more challenging, as it requires a wide variety of expertise and resources to develop and implement programs. This includes ethnographers and social workers to document and analyze cultural practices, and historians to construct narratives of their meaning and significance. In the end, though, the values underlying cultural heritage are ultimately a matter of individual judgment.