The idea of protecting cultural heritage and the ownership of such property is not new. In ancient Rome, public works of art and private buildings shared a common value. It was illegal to demolish statues on private property. Today, this same concept applies to cultural heritage. In a cultural heritage lesson, students consider how objects have been contested and how they have been reclaimed. While many people disagree on how cultural heritage is protected, there is no denying that the idea of preserving cultural heritage is important.
In addition to the aesthetic value of a piece of art, cultural heritage can also help heal a nation after a conflict. In Timbuktu, for example, thousands of manuscripts were smuggled out during a civil war. In response, the city’s Hill Museum and Manuscript Library digitized the documents and presented them to future generations. This is just one example of how cultural heritage can help people heal from traumatic events in history.
The issue of what cultural heritage means is complicated. A good definition of cultural heritage should not rely on a shaky definition of the term itself, but on what it is actually composed of. While many examples exist, some cultural practices may not be entirely desirable. Some practices may even be morally objectionable. Thus, cultural heritage literature may be problematic and difficult to define. Cultural integrity and preservation advocates are frequently accused of making wrong assumptions about the culture in which they live.
Whether a culture’s heritage is physical or immaterial is largely a matter of perspective. For some, cultural heritage includes artifacts, architecture, and archeological sites. In other instances, the concept encompasses all types of evidence of human creativity and expression. From African masks to Vedic chanting to Kabuki theatre, cultural heritage is not limited to the physical landscape. It can encompass all forms of arts, including music and crafts.
Considering the various evaluative assumptions that people have about heritage, the notion of ownership and use may be especially contested. Although the term heritage has a positive connotation, it is often framed in terms of who owns the past. While some scholars are suspicious of using process-oriented approaches, others are convinced that there is something meaningful about the material values of official heritage, which they believe should be protected and preserved. They will argue, however, that the latter approach will be less harmful to the preservation of heritage.
While cultural heritage may be a collective endeavor, it is ultimately a human creation. The individual plays a central role in the creation of cultural heritage, and denying someone the means to create their own heritage is not only detrimental to their well-being but also to their normative agency. And depriving someone of the resources they need to create their heritage is a cultural genocide. This can be done in many ways, including systematic and ruthless actions.
Those who oppose the eviction of cultural property and the destruction of their culture may claim that repatriation is a form of retribution. Repatriation may also be justified if the appropriation of cultural property is linked to an historical injustice. In this case, repatriation is the more reasonable solution, as it avoids the problematic problem of establishing unjust acquisition of a particular object. There are many complexities surrounding cultural heritage and repatriation, so it is important to consider all these aspects when reviewing the issue of cultural property and its appropriation.