While most of us associate cultural heritage with a single society, the concept has been around for centuries. The work of historians, philologists, and ethnographers resulted in the creation of the world’s greatest libraries, museums, and archaeology collections. Likewise, the work of craftsmen, artists, and musicians drew on the culture of many people, and the work of freed African-American slaves resulted in the development of neoclassical plantation mansions.
While this is not always an issue, the removal of works from their original context may result in loss of knowledge about the work or community that created it. Moreover, relocating works from their contexts creates an ethical dilemma for the people who created them. One example is the case of the Parthenon sculptures. During the civil war in Timbuktu, thousands of manuscripts were smuggled out and taken to the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. These manuscripts have been digitized, preserving them for future generations.
Many nations have disputed the status of objects that are part of their cultural heritage. They argue that the objects are of utmost importance to the culture of the nation that owns them. This argument has been argued by many cultural internationalists, and has found support in various aspects of international law, including the Hague Convention of 1954 and the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. The arguments for cultural internationalism have become increasingly common, and the UNESCO World Heritage Convention provides further evidence for this view.
Despite widespread agreement on the importance of preserving and respecting cultural heritage, there is still disagreement over how to protect it. Most scholars believe that cultural heritage is a global concern, and as such, a global effort is needed to ensure that it is preserved in perpetuity. Cultural integrity and preservation are closely linked to human rights. If an individual is deprived of resources necessary to protect their cultural heritage, it is damaging to their well-being and undermines their normative agency.
The distinction between official and unofficial heritage is a useful one. The distinction may be helpful when challenging dominant historical narratives. For instance, some scholars might question the benefits of adopting a process-oriented heritage approach at the expense of traditional material concerns, especially if they believe that official heritage has a significant value. Ultimately, cultural heritage is about the past, the present, and the future. However, cultural heritage has a complicated history, and the challenges associated with it are enormous.
The protection of cultural heritage involves the balance between public and private interests. The ancient Romans, for example, recognized the value of art works in common, even though they were owned by private citizens. Thus, they could not remove sculptures that adorned their buildings. But today, the balance is different. There are three elements that make up a cultural heritage title: territorial protection, private property, and public access. UNESCO is promoting a process to protect cultural heritage.
Cultural appropriation is often justified when a particular culture has been wronged. This enables the creation of caricatures of the culture, which may further exclude members of a minority group. They may also justify the retention of objects in a public or academic setting. Likewise, repatriation cases are often justified by the purported universal value of cultural heritage. As a result, cultural appropriation cases can have both normative and descriptive meanings.