Cultural heritage is a broad term that encompasses both physical artifacts and intangible attributes inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations. The term is most often used to refer to monuments, buildings and archaeological sites; however, it can also include collections of objects and intangible characteristics such as language, folklore, traditions and cuisine.
Protecting cultural heritage is important not only for its historical value, but also for the economic, environmental and social sustainability of societies and their inhabitants. In recent years, the global conservation of cultural heritage has become a priority, as reflected by the increasing number of World Heritage Sites. The international community has recognized the importance of safeguarding such sites and their cultural heritage, as an integral part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 11.4).
The preservation of heritage is a complex task that requires the expertise and skills of various professionals, including conservators, archaeologists, historians, geologists, anthropologists, engineers, architects, biologists, chemists, materials scientists, and botanists. These individuals can work in a variety of settings, such as museums and historic sites; conservation, research and restoration companies; government agencies; and other nonprofit organizations.
This task can be challenging, as the values and perspectives associated with historic places, monuments, and collections can sometimes be contentious. What may be lauded and celebrated by one group of people can also be denigrated by others, such as in recent protests over monuments in the United States.
Moreover, heritage can be under threat for a variety of reasons, including lack of money to maintain it, damage caused by climate change, environmental destruction, terrorism and war. This can be especially true of historic sites, as in the case of Palmyra.
There are also many different types of heritage that can be threatened, from artifacts to historic towns and underwater sites. The loss of cultural heritage can be catastrophic, as it destroys the identity and history of a country.
The destruction of heritage is a process that can be slow or quick, depending on how the society chooses to preserve it and what kind of values and objects are considered important and worthy of protection. This selection process is constantly influenced by political and religious movements, ideologies and even the media.
A major problem is the transfer of ownership of such cultural property, often referred to as “immoralization.” This can occur through organized crime, money laundering, and even terrorism. Such illegal activities can have a devastating impact on the economic and social wellbeing of a region, as well as on its culture and historical heritage.
It is therefore essential that all efforts to save cultural heritage are done in the interest of all stakeholders, and in the interests of all citizens, so as to ensure a lasting legacy for the future. For this reason, international co-operation is an essential tool in preserving and protecting these valuable assets.