Cultural heritage is all the physical and intangible elements that together represent a society’s history, values, traditions, and identity. It includes tangible heritage (such as art and monuments) and intangible heritage (like music, dance, languages, and food) that make up the shared culture of a group of people. All of this is part of a community’s heritage and should be preserved for future generations.
Cultural preservation is a complex process. A key issue is that different societies have differing perspectives on what is valuable heritage and thus, which aspects should be protected. A second important issue is that cultural heritage is often intangible, making it difficult to quantify and value, yet it is nevertheless an essential component of a society’s human fabric. Intangible heritage may be as diverse as a particular language, a dance form, a festival, a cuisine, or a spiritual practice.
Among the most important goals of many cultural heritage organizations is building and sustaining a sense of community. This may happen at neighborhood fairs, when communities gather to celebrate their diverse music and food traditions, or when ethnic groups come together to observe their traditional rites of passage. It also happens in more formal settings, such as community cultural centers and native language schools.
The challenge is to protect a culture’s heritage without stifling the community’s ability to use and enjoy it. It is not easy, and in some cases, the deterioration of cultural heritage has even become a factor in conflict and terrorism (for example, the destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra). Cultural heritage protection needs to include both preserving the tangible and intangible aspects of a culture and providing for its sustainable use.
One of the key challenges is to make tangible heritage accessible and understandable, so that the public can appreciate it and participate in its maintenance and promotion. This is why a number of cultural heritage organizations offer tours of their facilities to the public.
A third key issue is to safeguard cultural heritage from deterioration, vandalism, and misuse. This can include the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage, such as the desecration of tombs and mausoleums by non-state armed groups in Timbuktu; or the distortion of heritage values and objects, for example through the dissemination of ahistorical and propagandistic interpretations, which are sometimes driven by ideologies and religious beliefs.
The preservation and management of cultural heritage is a complex task, but it can be accomplished by identifying and defining the values that distinguish a culture from other cultures; and by establishing procedures for its conservation, restoration, and revitalization. It is also necessary to address the broader issues of the relationship between culture and development, including the links between a country’s natural and cultural heritage and its socio-economic well being. This is a challenging agenda that needs to be tackled by government agencies, the private sector, international organizations and, most of all, local communities. For instance, many of San Francisco’s long-standing businesses, restaurants, and events have been working for decades to preserve our historic sites and neighborhoods.