When we think of cultural heritage, we usually think of art (paintings, drawings, prints, mosaics and sculptures), historical monuments and buildings as well as archaeological sites. But the concept of cultural heritage is much wider than that. It encompasses all evidence of human creativity and expression: photographs, documents, books and manuscripts, instruments, etc. The idea is that, when taken together, these objects and sites are what makes up a society’s identity and character. Today, towns, underwater heritage and even the natural landscape may also be considered to be part of a country’s cultural heritage.
In this respect, we can easily understand why museums are so important for the preservation of a culture. They not only serve as a repository for artifacts, but they also play a critical role in educating visitors about that culture and its history. They do this in ways that are both informative and interactive. And they often encourage visitors to participate in a culture’s creative and expressive activities.
But, as the recent tragic events in Paris show, the world’s cultural heritage is under threat. Not only are artifacts being stolen, but they are also being destroyed — and the reaction from governments and international bodies has so far been patchy. Some argue that this is because the destruction of cultural heritage – and the cultural divides it can sometimes reveal – is often motivated by financial considerations rather than any sense of moral outrage. For example, Daesh’s destruction of cultural objects – including archaeological sites and shrines – raised money for the group through the illegal antiquities trade.
The destruction of cultural heritage also highlights the need to create more effective protection mechanisms. Among these are measures to ensure that those who manage cultural heritage have the skills and resources necessary to make decisions that preserve it for future generations. This is why it is important to support education and training in the field of cultural heritage.
A further challenge is to find a way to protect cultural heritage from factors that can damage it or cause it to fade away over time, such as pollution, natural disasters and climate change. And to find ways of promoting the positive aspects of cultural heritage that can bring people together and contribute to a sense of belonging. This is why it is important to support the work of the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, which has been working tirelessly to protect and restore cultural heritage around the world.
Keeping our cultural heritage intact requires the collaboration of many people and organizations, from restoring historical buildings to recording traditional tales. But protecting cultural heritage also needs to involve people from different parts of the world, as demonstrated by the fact that artists and craftsmen have always learned from one another, often across cultural boundaries and thousands of miles. We can see the impact of this learning in the influence of Japanese prints on Paul Gauguin’s paintings or the neoclassical architecture of homes built by enslaved African-Americans in Liberia.