The protection of cultural property is a perennial problem, and often involves balancing public and private rights. Even ancient Romans recognized the common value of privately owned works of art. As a result, they could not remove sculptures that adorned private buildings. But how do we best protect these works? Here are some basic guidelines:
Cultural heritage is more than material objects. It also includes the immaterial elements of history, such as oral histories and traditional crafts. These include knowledge handed down from generation to generation. Dances, for example, are often regarded as intangible cultural heritage. In addition, the art and science of other cultures have an influence on their own heritage, influencing the creation of modern music. Even freed African-American slaves built homes that mimicked neoclassical plantation mansions.
In addition, cultural heritage can include works of art, archaeological objects, and ethnological artifacts. In the US, the definition of cultural heritage is based on a law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. While the laws of other countries don’t apply to cultural objects, the laws of one’s own country may provide guidelines. If cultural heritage is not protected, it will be considered as “illegal alienation” under U.S. law.
If you wish to protect a piece of art, you can apply for a heritage title. Heritage title protects your heritage as long as it continues to have a cultural link to the people who created it. Heritage title also gives you rights over access, control, and return, and is based on an ongoing cultural link. But it’s important to note that this title doesn’t confer exclusive ownership rights on the owner. This means that you’re not allowed to sell or alienate the cultural property if you own it.
The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property prohibits the illicit export of cultural objects and transfers of ownership. However, this Convention is a bit outdated. In reality, it reflects a change in morality and the need for new rules. Its purpose is to prevent illegal exports of cultural objects, but it still doesn’t solve the title problems that exist today. Despite the importance of cultural heritage protection, no publicly managed database exists that documents stolen artefacts.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) explicitly mentions the protection of cultural heritage. Moreover, Article 1 of the ICESCR says that all people have the right to enjoy their art and culture. Its preamble states that “cultural diversity is a fundamental right of all peoples.”
Defining which cultural group belongs to which is notoriously difficult. The challenge arises in answering questions of cultural essentialism and continuity over time. For instance, the contemporary nation of Egypt can claim ancient Egyptian cultural property even though the ancient peoples were vastly different from modern-day Egypt. These differences complicate the interpretation of cultural heritage. And defining who owns what is culturally valuable is difficult. It’s best to seek a consensus on these issues.