While war and natural disasters can cause damage to art, war and climate change are particularly destructive for cultural heritage. For example, in the early 19th century, a British nobleman smuggled manuscripts from Timbuktu’s Acropolis. After the war, these manuscripts were digitized by the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. These digitized manuscripts are now accessible to tens of millions of tourists and students from around the world.
Many people refer to cultural heritage in terms of objects, ideas, practices, and beliefs. Artists, craftsmen, and musicians are often inspired by the cultural heritage of their countries. Pablo Picasso was influenced by African masks while freed African-American slaves created homes in the style of plantation mansions. Cultural heritage is a unique mix of both tangible and immaterial aspects that contribute to a society’s character and identity. Intangible elements can be as varied as a cuisine or a musical instrument.
While the 1970 UNESCO Convention designates states as exclusive owners of national cultural heritage, it does not consider the changing value of the cultural objects that they protect. Nationality can also be a blind spot in dispute resolution over cultural objects that have left their original setting. It is important to keep in mind that the parties to a cultural heritage dispute may be private individuals and states, rather than communities. The state may not feel adequately represented by a community, and vice versa.
Humankind has a rich heritage of pillaging, looting, and sacking. The Conquistadors razed ancient civilizations, and a vengeful Native American group tried to re-create their cultural heritage through the destruction of their country’s monuments. Today, cultural heritage is under attack as a strategic pillar of extremist warfare, and war against civilization itself. The importance of protecting cultural heritage cannot be understated.
Although the existing legal framework of art trade is based on the 1970 UNESCO Convention, regular ownership concepts are not appropriate to resolve title disputes over contested cultural objects. In this context, a notion of heritage title can serve as a bridge between regular ownership concepts and human rights law approaches. There is a vast void in law and policy when it comes to cultural objects, and the notion of heritage title could act as a bridge in such a case.
In addition to economic and social benefits, the preservation of cultural heritage can help heal the wounds of war. For example, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were used to target the Japanese cultural treasures. As a result, the Japanese rebuilt the memorials on the island and it is now one of the most visited sites in the post-World War II Europe. There is no question that cultural heritage has a vital role in healing the past and reuniting nations.
The destruction of cultural heritage has increased significantly in recent years. Attacks on cultural sites have become a major security and humanitarian challenge in affected regions. However, preserving cultural diversity is a vital part of social cohesion and crisis resolution. Protecting cultural diversity is also an essential part of national dialogue. The future of our nation depends on the survival of these treasures. The world’s cultural heritage is at stake. There is no better time to protect it.