Embodied in archaeological sites and historic buildings, works of art and collections, and living heritage like languages, traditions, and cuisines, cultural heritage represents the accumulated record of a society’s past achievements and its identity as an enduring whole. Its value is recognized by a community and transcends commercial attributes of its component parts, such as artifacts, architectural designs, or natural landscapes. It has become a focus of governmental attention, communal advocacy, and occupational professionalization over the past two centuries.
The preservation of cultural heritage requires a broad range of technical and professional expertise, from conservators to law enforcement officers, architects, engineers, and program managers. The specialized knowledge that these experts bring is vital to efforts to save monuments, buildings, and artifacts that may be endangered by neglect, natural disasters, or human aggression. The destruction of cultural heritage by nonstate armed groups, militias, despotic governments, or invading armies is often considered a form of social and ethnic genocide. Such attacks have the additional impact of erasing the associations people have with locations and buildings.
The notion of cultural heritage crystallized from the documentary and analytic work of antiquarians, historians, philologists, archaeologists, ethnographers, and museum curators in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their impulse to document, preserve, study, and present cultural heritage led to the development of the world’s great libraries, archives, and museums and the emergence of a profession devoted to the safeguarding of cultural heritage.
A growing body of evidence shows that the preservation and management of cultural heritage is important for a country’s economy. For example, the economic benefits of tourism associated with a heritage site can be significant. In addition, heritage sites and their collections spawn artisanal, design, fashion, and performing arts enterprises that can support employment and generate income.
These positive and normative economic factors make the preservation of cultural heritage a worthwhile endeavor. At the same time, it is difficult to quantify the intrinsic value of cultural heritage because many of its benefits are nontraded and not easily measurable. However, recent studies are bringing greater rigor to the estimation of the financial and broader economic, tangible, and intangible values of cultural heritage.
The cultural heritage that regales throngs of tourists with tales of pageantry and conquest frequently embody rarely recounted stories of oppression, sacrifice, and suffering of disempowered communities that were once its inhabitants. In the face of such a complex history, it is important that efforts to preserve and protect cultural heritage include an effort to understand its full complexity. The better estimation of these intangible values can help guide heritage conservation policy and practice by helping to ensure that the benefits of protecting cultural heritage are reflected in government spending and priorities. In this regard, it is an essential complement to the ongoing work to bring more rigor to the valuation of economic and other benefits. It can also help instill a sense of ownership that will make people more likely to conserve and sustain the heritage they value.