Matagorda County Museum Our Blog The Challenges of Protecting Cultural Heritage

The Challenges of Protecting Cultural Heritage

0 Comments 20:06

Culture is a central part of people’s identities, and as such it’s important to preserve the traditions that are unique to each society. Cultural heritage consists of both physical and non-physical expressions of human culture, including languages, modes of living, and spiritual beliefs. As UNESCO has become more aware of the need to protect these expressions, the organization has broadened the definition of “heritage” from monuments, buildings, and artifacts to include intangible cultural heritage—things like carnivals, alphabets, and equestrian games; customs centered around real or symbolic spaces, such as the Arab practice of seated gatherings called majlis; and knowledge of the natural environment.

This new definition has prompted debate about what constitutes cultural heritage. Many anthropologists argue that traditional knowledge and practices are an essential component of the human experience, and should be protected just as much as the works of art, buildings, and landscapes that have been deemed worthy of preservation by UNESCO. Others, however, are concerned that this shift in focus threatens to marginalize societies whose cultural expressions may not be as tangible as the obelisks of a Venetian palazzo or the temples of Egypt.

Even if the term cultural heritage is defined broadly enough to encompass all human societies and their traditions, there are still difficulties in protecting it. For one, cultural boundaries are often not well-defined: painters, writers, craftsmen, and musicians learn from each other, often without regard to the cultural boundaries that separate them. Think of Paul Gauguin’s use of Japanese prints or the influence of neoclassical architecture on homes built by freed African-American enslaved people in Liberia.

The challenge is even greater when it comes to the protection of cultural heritage in conflict zones and other areas where security is difficult. This is especially true for intangible cultural heritage, which is often more susceptible to damage and loss than the physical artifacts that UNESCO has traditionally protected.

It’s also a challenge to find the resources necessary to support preservation efforts, both for the intangible and the tangible aspects of heritage. In the case of intangible cultural heritage, the monetary support often comes from private donors rather than government sources. This means that if a donor wants to help, they need to work with local partners who can provide the financial and in-kind support that is needed to protect heritage in regions where these resources are most at risk.

Despite these challenges, there are ways to mitigate the threat of destruction. For example, UNESCO has set up a fund that helps local partners safeguard their cultural heritage in war zones and other challenging environments. This fund has already provided assistance for preserving some 3,000 sites, and will continue to play an important role in protecting heritage around the world. Additionally, a partnership between local governments and nongovernmental organizations can improve the odds of preserving cultural heritage in conflict zones by reducing the risks of damage or loss by providing financial and logistical assistance for preservation.