Matagorda County Museum Our Blog The Importance of Cultural Heritage

The Importance of Cultural Heritage

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Whether expressed as historic buildings, collections of antiquities or art, cultural heritage encompasses the cultural expressions of societies. It includes both tangible, physical characteristics such as buildings, statues and works of art that can be seen (and visited), and intangible ones including customs, practices, languages, beliefs, and traditions that cannot be physically seen but are passed down from one generation to the next. In the case of human cultures, it can also include the accumulated knowledge of past accomplishments and achievements. The preservation and revitalization of cultural heritage is a key component of civic life.

Preserving and promoting cultural heritage is a large global undertaking with many different types of organizations engaged in the effort. In terms of broader organizational structure, the majority of cultural heritage organizations are nonprofits. A variety of funders support these groups in this endeavor, including government ministries of culture, national museums, libraries and archives, intergovernmental organizations like UNESCO and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, and non-governmental organizations that focus on individual artistic disciplines (like African American- or Hispanic-affiliated arts organizations).

A variety of challenges are faced by those who work to preserve and promote cultural heritage. Benign neglect, devastating accidents or major natural disasters can cause serious damage to the fabric of a heritage site, whether that’s an ancient archaeological ruin in Egypt or the collection of artworks at a museum in Haiti; or, as climate change takes its toll, sites can be threatened with permanent loss.

The scope and scale of scholarly research in this area has expanded considerably over the past decade, reflecting a larger societal interest in the importance of heritage to individuals and society. A search of ProQuest Central for peer-reviewed journals using the field term “cultural heritage” yields over 30,000 results. A deeper look reveals that this scholarly field is gaining in prominence, with the number of articles increasing over time and a general increase in quality as measured by productivity metrics and other quality assessment measures borrowed from the natural sciences.

Scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds are engaging with this phenomenon, and the broad societal interest has led to a wide range of scholarship on topics such as the relationship between history and identity, conservation strategies, heritage tourism, and cultural heritage in times of crisis. A common theme in these discussions is a tension between universalism and cultural specificity: On the one hand, there is a push towards conceiving of cultural heritage as universally valuable, grounding consequent rights or permissions for all concerning its use and ownership; on the other hand, there is a need to acknowledge that different cultural groups have their own particular claims on it.

Many of the societal and academic concerns surrounding cultural heritage are contentious, a fact reflected in a significant proportion of the journals with the highest total citation counts for this field.1 This article focuses on those with the most frequent co-authors of papers on the subject: Massimo Montella from the University of Macerata in Italy, who is involved in research on the economics of heritage and the theory of heritage as service, and Melissa Terras from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, who has contributed to papers on the cultural value of heritage and the role of museums in its protection and promotion.