Cultural heritage is a complex concept that encompasses the myriad ways individuals, communities, and organizations value and engage with manifestations of culture and history. This includes tangible heritage artifacts (buildings, monuments, works of art, archaeological sites and museums) as well as intangible heritage such as languages, customs, and traditions that are embedded into daily life. Heritage can bring people together, or it can marginalize and isolate. It can be found in personal experiences and community activities, education programs, scholarly research, government policies, preservation, and tourism.
Cultural Heritage reflects the world in which we live, and it is inherently diverse. It is served best by multidisciplinary approaches and methodologies that take into account the different needs of those who care for it. The study of cultural heritage requires the integration of humanities, social sciences and environmental studies.
This is because cultural heritage matters on multiple levels and involves different stakeholders with divergent interests. Solutions to these issues must therefore take into consideration different perspectives and seek common ground.
The complexity of heritage is further highlighted by the fact that it consists of intangible and tangible components, which are entangled in the interrelationship between culture and nature. It is not possible to disentangle these two, and this is one of the reasons why it is important to take into account all aspects of a heritage site.
UNESCO defines cultural heritage as the “shared heritage of mankind” and recognizes the need to protect cultural property from illicit trade, illegal removal or destruction. This is a global challenge, and it is up to all of us, whether we are concerned with the protection of our own heritage or that of others, to contribute to achieving this goal.
One way of doing this is by supporting the work of heritage institutions that strive to promote and preserve cultural heritage. Another is to boycott online resale sites and questionable auctions, which contribute to the exploitation of heritage by traffickers. A third approach is to become a vocal advocate, interfacing with both governmental and non-governmental agencies that work on the behalf of culture.
Heritage is also important to those who are working on the humanitarian front, as it can provide a sense of stability and dignity for affected populations in times of crisis. Corine Wegener, an archivist and preservation officer at the Smithsonian’s Institute for the Study of Material Culture, believes that the work to save cultural heritage and the work to alleviate suffering do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Because of their focus on addressing the needs of diverse communities, cultural heritage organizations are often at the forefront of tackling challenging and complex issues. This is reflected in the fact that their programming blends program areas that are traditionally kept distinct by public and private funders. They are also a unique point of contact with communities that are not typically well served by mainstream organizations, including inner-city neighborhoods and rural areas. Many of these organizations are small, and they struggle financially.