The physical legacy (buildings, monuments, artifacts, works of art and written texts) and intangible attributes (folklore, traditions, language) of a group or society that are inherited from the past, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations are collectively known as cultural heritage. It is the distinctive and irreplaceable heritage that defines a people.
In the past, the impulse to document and preserve the heritage of humankind led to scholarly research by antiquarians, philologists, archaeologists, historians, ethnographers, naturalists and museum curators. The emergence of the concept of heritage as an object of governmental attention, communal advocacy and professionalization is the result of this early work.
UNESCO’s definition of cultural heritage has broadened in recent years to encompass more than historical-artistic artifacts, including cultural landscapes and the social processes that give them meaning. This expansion is important, given that the threats to cultural heritage are not just benign neglect and destructive accidents but also major natural disasters like earthquakes that have destroyed museums in Haiti and Italy; fires that burned down Notre Dame and many other historic buildings and collections of books, manuscripts and paintings; and climate change that threatens to erode the integrity of ancient archaeological sites, natural monuments and living cultural traditions in the Arctic.
It is important to remember that for most cultural heritage organizations building and sustaining a sense of community is the primary objective of their programs. This can happen in small ways – by providing a space for neighbors to meet, as at a neighborhood fair; or more broadly through a city’s annual celebration of its diverse music and food traditions; or in a community cultural center or in a native language school for immigrant children.
The purposeful actions of nonstate armed groups, militias and despotic governments or invading armies that attack tangible cultural heritage inflict losses far beyond the mere destruction of monuments or disappearance of objects – they are akin to a kind of social and cultural genocide. A better estimation of the economic value of heritage, using techniques that can take into account use and nonuse values, could help focus national and international attention on the full cost of these atrocities.
The economic question is whether societies should spend their scarce resources protecting cultural heritage “assets.” These are costly to maintain, requiring investments in everything from staffing and maintenance to restoration and repair of structures and collections. This needs to be balanced against the competing claims of society for education, health and infrastructure.