Cultural heritage is a rich and varied collection of intangible assets inherited by a society from previous generations. These include physical artifacts, such as paintings and other artistic works, archeological and historical monuments, buildings and other historic sites, and the natural landscape, such as the plain of Runnymede in England where the Magna Carta was signed or the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia. It also encompasses social customs, traditions and practices that characterize the distinctiveness of a culture, including beliefs and values, art forms, music, language, sports, religious and spiritual traditions, indigenous knowledge, and historic sites.
Cultural property can be a source of national pride and a focus of international cooperation and goodwill. At the same time, it can be a flashpoint for conflict and violent extremism. The destruction of the mausoleums in Timbuktu, for example, revealed how strongly Islamic fundamentalists are willing to destroy other Islamic cultures that do not conform to their own narrow and exclusive vision. The UNESCO-backed preservation of the temples in Cambodia after years of war and civil unrest is one of the organization’s most impressive achievements in its efforts to promote heritage and reconciliation among societies torn apart by conflict.
In addition to protecting its heritage, a country may wish to enhance it, for example by developing educational and tourism initiatives based on its historical or archaeological resources. This can present a challenge for many poor countries, however, as it requires significant financial investments that can compete with other priorities.
Fortunately, new techniques and methods are helping to recognize the importance of a culture’s intangible heritage and provide ways to measure it. For example, stated preference (SP) valuation methods can help to assess the value of a heritage site to a particular individual or group.
The methods are used to estimate benefits that cannot be easily measured in markets, such as the aesthetic or recreational value of a heritage site. These benefits can be difficult to compare, because they require a person to have an actual experience rather than just a mental image. They are, therefore, harder to quantify than market prices, which depend on the ability to buy and sell goods in a marketplace.
These methods are largely dependent on the availability of substitutes, which may be more or less comparable to the cultural heritage under consideration. While this limitation is a concern, it can be overcome by measuring the use values of a cultural heritage site and its direct or indirect effects on the user. This can be done by comparing the cost of an alternative experience, such as the price of a ticket to a museum or the cost of a trip to a historic city. These use values can then be aggregated to provide an overall estimate of the heritage site’s value to a particular user. Indirect use values are likely to have greater relevance to the evaluation of cultural heritage than nonuse or option values. This is because these values are typically directly related to the enjoyment of a cultural experience.