The concept of cultural heritage encompasses a broad spectrum of manifestations of culture and history that can be tangible or intangible: places, objects, stories, daily practices, and memories. It is embedded in complex social processes through which individuals or communities identify what they consider valuable to be passed on to future generations. The result of this process is a web of values, beliefs and traditions that define culture, which in turn defines identities.
When we think of heritage, we often imagine artworks (paintings, drawings, prints, mosaics, sculptures), archaeological sites and monuments, historic buildings and museums, as well as the natural environment. However, heritage also comprises immaterial elements such as traditions, language and oral histories, performing arts, community crafts, artisanal skills and representations. It is a product of a continuously changing set of value systems. The selection of which elements are preserved and forgotten is the basis for societal consensus about the past and the future.
These values are the foundation for a shared cultural identity that allows people to connect with each other and feel a sense of belonging. This shared identity is necessary for a society to function in peace and stability, while it contributes to the development of trust, dialogue, and mutual understanding among societies with different backgrounds.
In a globalized world, protecting cultural heritage is an increasingly complex challenge. Benign neglect, devastating accidents and major disasters — such as the earthquake that shattered Notre Dame or the fire that destroyed the collection of the National Museum in Brazil – threaten the existence of many cultural institutions and their collections. The threat is also increasing because of climate change, which can cause erosion and flooding, or even the destruction of entire cities.
The challenge to protect cultural heritage is a complex one, but there are solutions. It is a process that requires the involvement of many stakeholders and a negotiated agreement on what needs to be protected. The most important tool for preserving cultural heritage is education. By educating citizens and local authorities about the importance of heritage preservation, it is possible to build support for its protection.
Cultural heritage organizations have a unique role to play in fostering a sense of belonging for all citizens. They are able to bring together people from different neighborhoods and cities, ethnic groups and immigrants, rural areas, and other communities that are not served by mainstream cultural organizations. They also have the capacity to bridge gaps between science and culture by facilitating dialogue between scholars and practitioners.
In the long term, cultural heritage can foster a sense of belonging and promote tolerance by fostering the exchange of ideas and experiences across diverse cultures. This can lead to new partnerships and collaborative projects and provide a platform for dialogue between societies. In the context of Europe, this has been demonstrated by a series of intercultural events and activities organised by cultural heritage organisations and supported by the Council of Europe. These initiatives are helping to create a space for mutual respect and understanding, and can contribute to the creation of a common European identity.