Cultural heritage can be understood as the aggregate of the expressions and values that a group or community perceives as fundamental to its identity. It is typically a complex combination of art, literature, music and dance, architecture and other buildings, historical monuments and sites, traditions, crafts and skills, and social or familial practices. Heritage also includes the natural landscape, which is often a source of community pride and identity.
Cultural Heritage in Practice
The broad range of cultural heritage raises many difficult issues. One of the most central is the tension between universalism and cultural specificity. On the one hand, there is a strong pull towards conceiving of cultural heritage as a human common good and thereby grounding consequent rights or permissions for all to use it. On the other hand, there is a strong push for culturally specific rights and restrictions that allow for recognition of the special claims of certain groups to cultural heritage.
Another central issue is the question of whether there is a coherent sense of cultural heritage that is sufficiently stable to support a system of protected monuments and museums. This is particularly important in countries with a history of colonialism and a legacy of centralized power. While there is a great deal of debate about the proper balance of these competing concerns, there is no doubt that the protection of cultural heritage in these situations requires a careful and sensitive balancing of these issues.
There are a wide variety of organizations that promote and preserve cultural heritage, including arts and culture centers, museums, archaeological sites, and preservation societies. In addition, there are a number of other organizations that sponsor cultural heritage activities, most often in the fields of education; food, agriculture and nutrition; health and medicine; community improvement and capacity-building; religion; and international development.
While these organizations differ in their approaches and the expressive forms they emphasize, all of them promote and support a particular set of heritage values. These values may include the promotion of a certain type of artistic style or a kind of cuisine, or they may encourage the understanding of ethnic, racial, regional, religious, or folk cultures or their traditions.
Cultural heritage is also a powerful tool for building loyalty among members of a group or society, especially during times of conflict. For example, a group can use its treatment of heritage to justify violence toward out-groups, such as by referring to those traditions as “ancient” or “traditional.” Such tactics can validate existing power structures and create loyalty within the in-group. They can also help develop a sense of identity that may be used as a basis for political and military alliances.