Cultural heritage is the physical and intangible attributes of society that characterize its distinctiveness. It includes cultural values and traditions, rites and rituals, beliefs, history, the arts (such as music, dance, painting, sculpture), languages, cuisine, and many other aspects of a culture. It also encompasses the knowledge accumulated through generations and transmitted by oral history.
All peoples make their contribution to the world’s cultural heritage, and it is important that all cultures are recognized and protected by national laws and international treaties. Illicit trafficking of artifacts and cultural objects, pillaging of archaeological sites, and destruction of historic buildings and monuments are damaging to a country’s cultural heritage and must be stopped.
Often, the preservation of cultural heritage requires community participation. This can be as simple as restoring a historical building or passing down an ancient craft to the next generation. It can also involve reenacting historical events and celebrations, or telling stories about the past. In this way, people can connect with their own culture and feel a sense of rootedness. This sense of belonging and identity is a powerful source of strength, resilience, and hope.
Preserving cultural heritage also brings economic benefits to the communities that house and maintain the museums, historic buildings, and traditions. It attracts tourists, which creates jobs in the hospitality industry and other related artisanal businesses. The preservation of cultural heritage also sends a message that a country cares about its past and is committed to making sure that future generations can access it.
Heritage is a powerful tool that fosters a sense of identity, community and belonging for individuals and societies alike. It binds societies together and creates a common bond that makes them feel rooted in their place, a sense of a shared lineage, and a destiny. This can create a sense of pride and ownership that positively impacts people’s lives, well-being, and health.
On the other hand, it can be contentious and divisive. Cultural heritage can be interpreted in a variety of ways, including censorship, multiculturalism, repatriation, inclusion and exclusion, nationalism and national identity, the relationship between cultural heritage and the concept of world heritage, and so on. In addition, there are a wide range of political and ideological movements that can cause controversies over the nature and purpose of cultural heritage and its protection.
Richard Kurin is a Distinguished Scholar and Ambassador-at-Large at the Smithsonian Institution, where he has worked for five decades. He has led U.S. cultural recovery efforts in Haiti and Iraq and helped draft UNESCO’s landmark international treaty on safeguarding intangible heritage, which has been ratified by 180 countries. He is the author of six books and has taught at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is a former director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He has served on numerous government committees and is a member of the International Cultural Property Rights Forum and the Advisory Board for the Center for American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.