Matagorda County Museum Our Blog The Concept of Cultural Heritage and Cultural Heritage Organizations

The Concept of Cultural Heritage and Cultural Heritage Organizations

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When people talk about cultural heritage, they often think of artifacts (paintings, prints, mosaics, sculptures), historical buildings and monuments, archaeological sites, and other physical manifestations of a culture. However, the notion of heritage has evolved beyond these objects to include ideas, beliefs and practices. This shift, sometimes referred to as intangible heritage, is challenging for the traditional property discourse and raises moral concerns. In particular, questions arise about the extent to which intangible cultural heritage may be appropriated by others.

In a world filled with mobility and rapid change, cultural heritage organizations play an important role in helping communities retain a sense of place and belonging. Such organizations can do this through building and sustaining community relationships, organizing local celebrations, and preserving cultural heritage. However, a clear definition of cultural heritage is hard to come by. The concept of cultural heritage encompasses many diverse values and philosophies that are often difficult to distinguish and categorize. The term “cultural heritage” is often used as a synonym for “cultural identity,” but it can also be applied to artistic expression, religious traditions, food and beverages, language, music, and social customs.

While the idea of a shared cultural heritage is an appealing one, it is not without its problems. Deliberate destruction of heritage values and objects on the one hand, and distorted, ahistoric or propagandistic interpretations on the other, are examples of misuse of cultural heritage that can occur around the world. The concept of cultural heritage is also problematic when it is used as a political tool to divide groups or promote a particular ideology or belief system.

Despite these challenges, the concept of cultural heritage is becoming increasingly important in the modern world. As a result, nonprofit cultural heritage organizations have a crucial role to play in shaping the future of heritage.

While the majority of nonprofit ethnic arts and heritage organizations in the United States focus on arts programming, a growing number have adopted a more holistic approach to cultural heritage by incorporating elements such as community promotion, preservation, and education into their mission. This trend is most evident in the African American-affiliated and Hispanic-affiliated arts organizations, which comprise a robust share of the nonprofit ethnic arts sector. In addition, museums worldwide are rethinking their roles from repositories of antiquities—or captured heritage—to curators of cultural heritage. Museums such as the Museum of South Australia, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and the National Museum of the American Indian have developed new curatorial strategies for exhibiting and interpreting indigenous cultural heritage. The increased emphasis on presenting cultural heritage in a broader context has also led to the emergence of community-based museums, which promote local interpretations and reflect a broad range of perspectives on heritage. For these reasons, the scope of the field is expanding in ways that can benefit all communities. This article explores the implications of these changes and argues for a more inclusive approach to heritage.