Heritage is not just a collection of buildings, monuments and art; it also includes the intangible attributes of people’s cultures, traditions, languages, and more. It is a living, dynamic concept that can be defined and understood in different ways by various segments of society—witness the recent debates over statues and monuments. It is constantly being revitalized, memorialized, exhibited, studied, analyzed and promulgated, often through controversy and conflict.
The word “heritage” derives from the Latin patrimonium, which means a connection to one’s past and a commitment to pass it on. Cultural heritage is thus a bridge between the past and the future, maintaining in the present the values of a group or society and bestowing them for the benefit of future generations. Unlike natural heritage, which is generally based on ecological and scientific criteria, the value of cultural heritage is socially determined and continually evolving through history, from one generation to the next.
In addition to a sense of identity and pride, cultural heritage can contribute to the economic wellbeing of communities. It can increase tourism and bring in needed revenue, as well as inspire young people to pursue careers in artisan crafts or historic preservation. It can also encourage charitable donations, help build capacity in the local community, and serve as a tool for peacebuilding efforts.
Moreover, a better estimation of the broader economic and tangible heritage values can bring more attention to the need for its protection and preservation. This is essential in the fight against those who deliberately attack it. Whether by nonstate armed groups, militias, despotic regimes or invading armies, such destruction is not only physically destructive but psychologically, emotionally and spiritually devastating. The effort to bring more rigor into the estimation of heritage values is therefore not only a research exercise but an important tool for helping to prevent such atrocities from occurring in the first place.
This article is part of the Yale Daily News’ “Heritage Matters” series, which brings together experts to explore a wide range of issues surrounding the care and preservation of cultural heritage. For more articles from the series, click here.
Heritage matters because the world’s cities, buildings and monuments are not just beautiful and evocative—they also play critical roles in determining our global future. This is why we need to invest in their protection, and in ensuring that more of the world’s people have access to this precious resource.
Despite the enduring importance of heritage as an asset for humankind, it remains under threat. While some cultural treasures are being preserved and protected by governments and other institutions, others are at risk of disappearing due to climate change and other factors.
Despite these challenges, many small and innovative nonprofit organizations—such as the Florida Public Archaeology Network, Maine Midden Minders and the Society for California Archaeology—are making tremendous contributions to the effort to preserve our country’s heritage in the face of rising sea levels and extreme weather. Their work is crucial and needs the support of the federal government, as well as private donors.