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The Literature on Cultural Heritage


The broad category of cultural heritage encompasses all aspects of the past that are recognized by a community as enduring symbols of its identity. It includes the tangible artifacts of ancient archaeological sites and historical buildings, collections of antiquities and artworks and archives of books and manuscripts. It also covers intangible heritage including traditions and social practices, oral histories, performing arts and knowledge systems transmitted from generation to generation within a given culture. Cultural heritage is more than just history; it is also the process of choosing what to preserve for future generations and what to let fade into oblivion.

The vast realm of cultural heritage can be challenging to manage, as benign neglect, devastating accidents and natural disasters (such as the earthquakes that have ravaged parts of Italy and Haiti or the fire that destroyed Notre Dame and many museums in France) and climate change threaten to destroy cherished landmarks. Cultural heritage preservation involves many specialized professionals: conservators, law enforcement and architects; scientists in engineering, archaeology, biology, chemistry, physics, hydrology, geology, geography and history; curators, archivists and librarians; artists and art historians; and program managers and benefactors.

A variety of inter-related topics are examined in the research literature on cultural heritage: contested histories and conflicting narratives; the relationship between cultural heritage and colonialism, imperialism and the legacy of war; the impact of digital technologies on the interpretation, preservation and dissemination of cultural heritage, including the development of new tools for augmented reality and virtual worlds; the role of public institutions in protecting and preserving cultural heritage, from museums to zoological gardens; and the relationship between a country’s culture, its identity and national heritage.

UNESCO’s cultural heritage definition acknowledges that the cultural heritage of nations is not simply a record of what has been saved, but it is also a living legacy and an instrument for sustainable development. As such, the organization encourages all members of society to participate in heritage preservation, protection and revitalization initiatives.

The following articles in WOS reflect the wide range of topics related to cultural heritage, as demonstrated by the clustering analysis in Figure 1. The largest cluster, shown in red, focuses on the theme of heritage protection and management and contains 21 inter-related keywords such as ‘heritage protection’,’museums’ and ‘conservation’. The second largest cluster, in green, consists of 15 keywords such as ‘ethnography’, ‘heritage’ and ‘traditions’. The third largest cluster, in blue, focuses on intangible heritage and includes themes such as ‘oral history’ and ‘folklore’. The remaining four clusters are related to specific countries, as illustrated by the highlighting of Italy in yellow, Argentina in pink and Romania in dark blue. In addition, there is a small purple cluster centered on the concept of Indigenous heritage. In the latter case, this refers to the preservation of Indigenous cultural and traditional heritage by governments, museums and other cultural institutions. This is a growing area of interest, with museums around the world experimenting with ways to incorporate cultural heritage into their exhibits and educational programs.