Cultural heritage is the legacy of a society’s past and the collective expression of its unique identity. It consists of physical artifacts and intangible attributes that characterize its distinctiveness, such as social customs, practices, festivals and rituals, knowledge, beliefs, aesthetic and spiritual values and oral traditions. It also includes historical places, buildings and monuments, archaeological sites, artworks, literary works and musical instruments.
The preservation and conservation of cultural heritage requires many different skills and techniques, including a range of technical disciplines, and it is often highly complex and multi-layered. It is also a political and moral issue, with the meanings and values ascribed to heritage inevitably being debated and contested. The issues surrounding cultural heritage are interwoven with a wide variety of other topics such as contested history and conflicting narratives, cosmopolitanism, nationalism, human rights, the role of museums, and many more.
As the importance of preserving cultural heritage is increasingly recognized, the protection of cultural property has been incorporated into human rights law. In particular, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, based on a wide range of international norms, has developed a right to cultural heritage in Article 15 of its Covenant. This right is rooted in the fundamental principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
One of the key challenges is balancing the need to preserve cultural heritage with people’s desire to use and enjoy it. This is especially important when determining how to conserve cultural heritage sites that are primarily used as tourism attractions, such as historic cities and museums. This balance can be further complicated by the fact that some cultural heritage items are inherently scarce and irreplaceable. For example, it is estimated that the value of a single ancient Greek statue can exceed that of an equivalent number of modern replicas.
Cultural heritage can be lost in a number of ways, from natural disasters (e.g. the destruction of a city like Pompeii) to conflict and war. It can also be damaged by deliberate acts of destruction or theft, and even a lack of maintenance can lead to its loss. In addition, a wide range of cultural heritage sites are at risk from the effects of climate change.
Cultural heritage is a valuable part of our shared history, and it helps us to understand the past and the cultures from which we come. It can also increase our feelings of belonging and allow us to connect with ancestors. Preserving cultural heritage is therefore a matter of human dignity and can help to promote reconciliation and peace. For these reasons, the JCCCNC believes that cultural heritage is a critical area for discussion and action.