Aesthetic, cultural, social, and economic values attach to heritage. Those who are connected to their cultural heritage, whether it is the physical objects in a museum or the intangible traditions of their families, are more able to face current challenges and create a path toward a better future. The United States supports local efforts to preserve heritage, both tangible and intangible, through a wide range of programs. These include fostering a sense of community through cultural traditions, such as food and music, and supporting the preservation of archaeological and historic properties.
The concept of heritage has been enriched with new shades of meaning as it evolves through international legal instruments and other normative systems. It is essential to understand these broader interpretations to grasp the complexity of the topic.
Heritage can be anything that is part of a society’s identity and tradition. It may be a building, an art work, a dance or language. It is not a single object but a collection of items and traditions that together represent the history of a community and its values, customs and beliefs.
Many of the world’s cultural heritage sites are in jeopardy. Over time, they can be lost due to natural or human causes, such as erosion, climate change, overdevelopment, or conflict. The loss of cultural heritage is a serious concern that requires concerted action by all stakeholders, including governments, private corporations, and civil society organizations.
UNESCO’s definition of cultural heritage encompasses both the intangible and the tangible, as well as the whole of a people’s history and identity. It is defined as “the legacy of physical artefacts and intangible attributes of a people or a community, which have been inherited from past generations, maintained in the present, and bestowed on future generations.”
Most cultural heritage programs focus on connecting people to their roots, either through a city’s music or food traditions, or preserving archaeological and historic sites. This can help to strengthen a community’s identity and pride. It also encourages those with strong connections to their culture to be more receptive to the needs of others and to act as a force for good in the world.
The programs that cultural heritage organizations run are as diverse as the communities they serve. Programs can be as broad as a city’s festival or as focused as a county’s folklife center. The complexities of these activities, the different histories and cultures that they reflect, and the different levels of development in the participating communities make it difficult to define what is, and is not, heritage.
The diversity of cultural heritage issues and concerns means that it is challenging to find the right balance between a comprehensive approach to protecting cultural resources and an overly narrow focus on the protection of specific objects or sites. It is essential to understand these broader issues to help guide policy and practice.