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The Dictator’s Guide to Cultural Heritage

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Cultural heritage is the identity and ethos of a society, embodied in its artifacts, places, traditions, and ways of life. It includes the tangible (such as historic buildings, monuments, and works of art), intangible (such as oral histories and storytelling, dances, music, cuisine, crafts, and religious rituals) and the inanimate (such as geological landscapes).

It also extends beyond national borders and even through time. Artists, writers, scientists, and craftsmen from different cultures learn from each other — whether in person or via the Internet — and are inspired by each other’s work, even though they may be separated by geographic and historical distance. For example, Paul Gauguin’s paintings were influenced by Japanese prints and African masks, while some of the homes built by enslaved African-Americans in Liberia were modeled after neoclassical mansions of American plantations.

Intangible cultural heritage is also extremely diverse, and it consists of non-physical characteristics that have been passed down from one generation to the next in a community, such as its beliefs, values, customs, and practices. This can include everything from the tango and flamenco, the Viennese coffee house culture, and the Mediterranean diet to Chinese shadow puppetry, Vedic chanting, and Kabuki theatre. It is the invisible side of cultural heritage, which is often more important than the material aspects that are so readily visible to us.

Many of these intangible cultural heritage characteristics are under threat, whether through neglect and indifference, or as a result of war, conflict, or globalization. For example, a number of indigenous peoples are fighting to regain control of their ancestral lands and cultural properties that have been sold, stolen, or loaned out for commercial purposes. Others are fighting to preserve their traditional languages, religions, and other intangible aspects of their identities from being lost in the digital age.

The didactic use of cultural heritage can be an effective tool for developing a sense of identity and empathy with a common past by prompting students to critically explore their understandings of historical antecedents and interactions with contemporary realities. In addition, it is a way to encourage the development of critical thinking skills that can be applied to any situation.

While the concept of cultural heritage is incredibly complex, it is something that should be celebrated and preserved. However, it is essential to remember that what is considered cultural heritage by one group of people may not be viewed the same by another, and that what is deemed culturally significant can change over time as a result of changing political or social values or due to events such as war, conflict, or terrorism. Ultimately, it is up to individual individuals and groups to decide what they value about their heritage.