When most people think of cultural heritage, they picture artifacts (paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures and mosaics), historical monuments and buildings or archaeological sites. But cultural heritage is a much wider concept, now encompassing the tangible and intangible aspects of history and identity that comprise unique communities. It can include a city’s architectural landscape, the music of tango and flamenco or the foodways of the Viennese coffee house culture as well as ancient artisan crafts and rituals.
Preserving cultural heritage doesn’t only preserve an ancient past; it bolsters communities that depend on it for a future. By supporting the people who care for museums, historical buildings and traditions, we help them reduce poverty by providing jobs and economic opportunity and a way to tell their story to the world.
In a globalizing world, cultural heritage provides a bridge to connect the past to the present and to the future. Preserving cultural heritage is a powerful tool for building peace and understanding among the world’s diverse peoples.
A variety of government ministries of culture and international intergovernmental organizations like UNESCO, the International Council of Museums and the International Federation of Library Associations along with many non-governmental and private organizations including the Blue Shield, Aga Khan Foundation, International Council of Cultural Property Organizations, the Getty and Smithsonian have developed conservation, preservation and revitalization programs aimed at safeguarding cultural heritage in its entirety.
The challenge of maintaining cultural heritage is a complex one and is not only impacted by the nature of the heritage itself but also by its exposure to gradual and sudden changes in climate and by social, political and environmental factors. These can be caused by neglect and lack of financial resources for maintenance, the effects of war or terrorism and natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that destroy or damage cultural heritage and the impacts of climate change on outdoor or indoor heritage in its environment.
Preserving cultural heritage requires a broad interdisciplinary approach and a deep sense of responsibility. A variety of issues arise in connection with this, ranging from the question of how to define and assess authenticity (of both tangible and intangible heritage) to the repatriation of cultural objects by indigenous communities (museums), the inclusion or exclusion of particular peoples or cultures in museums, encyclopedic collections that started out as highly selected assemblages of items based on notions of antiquarian interest but now include a broad global perspective and are characterized by diversity, to questions of ethics and moral rights in the field of cultural heritage protection. A broad range of scholars and practitioners is engaged in these discussions, extending the interdisciplinary dialogue to a wide spectrum of topics. It is these conversations that will help to find solutions to the challenges faced in preserving our cultural heritage. The Institute is proud to play a part in these ongoing discussions. Click here to learn more about our work and how you can support it. This article was originally published by the American Institute for Conservation and is reprinted here with permission.