Cultural heritage can be in the form of ancient archaeological sites, historic buildings, collections of antiquities, artworks, artifacts, archives, and lifeways of contemporary communities. Unfortunately, this unique collection of cultural materials is vulnerable to destruction and challenges. Neglect can erode cultural heritage, and climate change can pose new challenges.
The deterioration of cultural heritage can have severe consequences for the local population. For example, war and violence can destroy manuscripts and artwork. For example, the civil war in Timbuktu resulted in the loss of thousands of manuscripts. Thankfully, efforts have been made at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library to digitize these works for future generations.
Cultural heritage preservation is a multidisciplinary endeavor that involves many specialists. Ethnographers, anthropologists, and historians contribute knowledge to the safeguarding of physical and cultural sites. Other specialists include social workers, community organizers, and chemists. Many times, cultural heritage preservation is carried out with the help of benefactors and local community leaders.
In the case of Latin America, the region has a rich cultural heritage. But despite these rich resources, ancient artifacts were looted, trafficked, and sold on the international market. Moreover, language used to classify cultural heritage is often a tool of oppression and erasure. In some cases, auction houses label historical objects as “pre-Columbian,” a term which is largely defined in terms of the historical period prior to the arrival of Columbus and the introduction of Spanish culture in the region.
Large-scale cultural traditions are based on the transmission of practices from generation to generation. Individual life is not critical to the survival of these practices, but the individual death of a person can cause appreciable cultural loss. Smaller-scale cultural traditions are based on the participation of individual individuals. The loss of one person can result in significant cultural loss and social stagnation.
There are many reasons why works of art are so important. Some are purely commercial, while others are based on religious or spiritual values. In some cases, they are simply the repository of culture. In the case of ancient works of art, these works are important spiritual and cultural symbols. They are also valuable monetary assets. This makes them targets for collectors and middlemen.
Cultural destruction is a form of genocide. Whether the destruction is intended to kill or save a group, it is a form of social death. It does not reduce the severity of the crime, but it is still a form of genocide. While destruction of cultural practice does not involve the destruction of a person’s cultural identity, it still qualifies as genocidal.