The term cultural heritage can be broadly defined as “the tangible and intangible attributes (buildings, monuments, works of art, archives, inscriptions, oral histories, folklore) and sites of memory and daily practices that constitute the distinctive characteristics of a culture or society and are transmitted from generation to generation” (UNESCO). As the most enduring symbol of a people’s identity, cultural heritage can bring communities together or divide them. It is a complex concept that encompasses many ways individuals, groups, institutions and governments value and engage with manifestations of history, culture, and place, from education programs to traditions, architecture, museums, preservation, tourism and scholarly research.
While it has always been important for human societies to record their past, the emergence of the concept of cultural heritage was prompted by the heightened interest in cultural heritage preservation and protection in the 18th and 19th centuries among antiquarians, archaeologists, philologists, historians, art collectors, museum curators, anthropologists, naturalists and other scholars. This interest in documenting, preserving, and analyzing the cultural heritage of different peoples led to the development of world’s great libraries, museums and other public institutions as well as an expansion of professional opportunities for those who worked with cultural heritage in some form or another.
Today, cultural heritage is a global industry providing significant economic benefits to host countries and regions as well as local communities. In addition to the economic benefits, it provides social cohesion and sense of heritage as well as an opportunity for people to experience other cultures and traditions. This can often be done through tourism and the cultural heritage sector in general is one of the fastest growing segments of the global travel industry.
However, the need to preserve and promote cultural heritage can also create challenges. Benign neglect, devastating accidents and natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, fires and even climate change can wreak havoc on cultural heritage sites and collections.
The cultural heritage sector is also a target of those who would destroy it for political, ideological or personal reasons. This is particularly true in places where there are humanitarian crises and conflicts. In these circumstances, it is challenging to balance the desire to protect cultural heritage with the need to support and assist people who are suffering.
Preserving cultural heritage is a multi-faceted endeavor, and the success of this effort depends on the ability to understand the many dimensions of the problem. This requires a cross-disciplinary approach that draws upon the knowledge of many disciplines, such as history, anthropology, sociology, geography and law. It is also crucial to work with the community that lives with cultural heritage to ensure it is sustainable. This can involve training community members to become stewards of their own heritage as well as helping other people experience it through tours and other activities. In this way, the preservation of cultural heritage can also act as a catalyst for societal transformation. This article was originally published by The Smithsonian and is republished here with permission.