Cultural heritage consists of the historic places, monuments, buildings, works of art, folklore, and knowledge that form the identity of a culture or a nation. It also includes the natural landscapes that are intimately entangled with the heritage and that must be preserved, researched, understood and shared in order for it to be sustained. The notion of heritage has been developed over the course of a long historical development and is based on values that are inherent in, or encapsulated in, individual cultural heritage elements as well as in the interdependence of those components.
The emergence of the concept of cultural heritage has been shaped by the need to safeguard those objects and landscapes that have a special value for mankind, thus allowing them to be considered part of what makes up our common human heritage. This has given rise to concepts that include the notion of “outstanding universal value” and the idea that these assets belong to humanity as a whole.
As a result of the growing awareness of the need to protect cultural heritage, numerous international institutions have been established to promote and implement measures of protection for the world’s cultural assets. UNESCO is a major international organization that has been instrumental in this effort. It currently oversees 936 UNESCO World Heritage Sites (including 725 cultural and 183 natural sites) in 153 countries.
However, the definition and scope of heritage remains a contentious issue. For example, a controversy has arisen over the fact that some of the properties designated as cultural heritage are often not properly documented or researched, and the way in which scholarly research is carried out can be influenced by political ideology. Moreover, some of these heritage sites may have been damaged or destroyed due to climate change or the impact of war, terrorism and other disasters.
In addition, the concept of cultural heritage is linked to other cultural issues that are often a source of conflict. These include contested history and conflicting narratives, cultural imperialism, the repatriation of anthropological objects from museums to their indigenous communities (the so-called “heritage business”), culturally specific rights and restrictions, and the cultures of practice in museums, archives and libraries.
Finally, the debate on cultural heritage is enriched by the question of the nature and limits of property rights. The tension between the desire for a broader understanding of heritage and the need to protect it from exploitation is also reflected in the discussions on intellectual property and copyright.