Cultural heritage – artifacts, buildings and sites, museums, and other cultural objects and practices that a society recognizes as important in terms of history, beauty, and/or spirituality – is the focus of increasing popular and scholarly interest. Some see it as a tool for supporting ethnic and nationalist interests, while others emphasize its creative, counterhegemonic side. This article explores the different values people assign to cultural heritage, how the concept has changed over time, and what the implications are for its conservation and use.
Although there is wide agreement that cultural heritage is of value to humanity, estimating this value can be difficult. Many artifacts, such as paintings or sculptures, can be traded and auctioned and thus have a market price, but this is not the case for most cultural heritage. Some heritage buildings, such as the house where Mozart was born and lived, have a value based on their association with an historic person, but most often the value of a cultural heritage site lies in its intrinsic qualities, whether this be its artistic, architectural, ethnological or archaeological, historical, or social qualities.
The intangible benefits of cultural heritage – such as the sense of place and the connections it creates with a past – are harder to quantify, but they are no less real. This is why it is so important for governments to devote adequate resources to ensuring that their cultural heritage sites are accessible and safe, and to develop policies to encourage sustainable tourism that preserve the integrity of these sites.
A more specific issue is the impact of climate change on cultural heritage, both indoor and outdoor. The deterioration of cultural heritage caused by gradual climate change has been a topic of intense study and debate, but the impact of sudden changes in the physical environment is less well understood. This article addresses this issue by exploring the ways in which cultural heritage exposed to the outdoors can be affected by climatic events and how it differs from heritage that is stored indoors.
The enduring importance of cultural heritage in human culture is evident from the way that it is celebrated, defended, and promoted, and the fact that it forms an integral part of many people’s identity. Those who feel strong attachments to their cultural heritage are better equipped to deal with current challenges and to design their own path toward a more positive future. This article contributes to a more precise estimation of the value of cultural heritage, and lays out a framework for its sustainable conservation.