The term “cultural heritage” encompasses not only historic places, monuments, artifacts, works of art, and other tangible features of humanity’s worldly history, but also intangible characteristics that a community values for their cultural identity. It includes the non-physical aspects of culture such as beliefs, customs and practices, knowledge, language, folklore, and traditions that are embodied in a community’s history and lifeways, as well as in its social and economic processes.
These cultural heritage characteristics are a result of a process that is constantly engaged by every human society in selecting what is to be remembered and what to forget. This selection is driven by a balance of aesthetic, historical, scientific, and cultural values, but it can also be determined by politics and power struggles. Those who have strong and living links to their heritage are better prepared to face the challenges of contemporary life and to design a future that will benefit them and their descendants.
It is no surprise, therefore, that heritage is often contested. What might be celebrated by one segment of a society is often denigrated by another, as evidenced by the ongoing controversy over statues and monuments in many countries. The problem is even greater when a community’s cultural heritage is threatened or destroyed by benign neglect, devastating accidents, and natural disasters – think of the earthquake that ruined historic churches and the fire that ravaged Notre Dame, or the melting of glaciers threatening the preservation of traditional Inuit hunting and fishing techniques.
In order to ensure that these issues are addressed, we need to bring more rigor into the estimation of the economic and broader intangible benefits of heritage, as well as the ways in which it can be maintained and enhanced. It is necessary to recognize that heritage is not just something to be consumed by tourists, but is an essential component in the development of a sense of national and community identity and pride.
These efforts to bring more rigor into the estimation and evaluation of the economic and broader intangible values of heritage are being carried out in various countries. The United States, for example, began to develop a public sector folklore infrastructure in the late 1970s with the creation of the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress, and State folklorists and folk arts programs. These efforts are now being replicated across the world. They are crucial in ensuring that the cultural and heritage sector is recognized as an essential component of sustainable development and that it is able to respond to challenges from both natural and man-made sources. We are at a critical time in the evolution of our heritage. The challenge is now to transform this legacy into a truly global cultural movement for all humanity. UNESCO’s ICH Convention is an important step in that direction. We can only succeed in this endeavor if we are all involved. Achieving this goal will require the cooperation of all stakeholders, including the private sector.