Matagorda County Museum Our Blog UNESCO Catalogues Cultural Heritage

UNESCO Catalogues Cultural Heritage

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cultural heritage

A cynic might think that cultural heritage, the cherished objects and traditions that make up a society’s collective identity, is just another name for the tango and flamenco, Viennese coffee house culture, the Persian carpet, or the Mediterranean diet that binds us to our ancient ancestors. But it’s not. As it turns out, the most valuable cultural heritage items are often immaterial—the artisanship of weaving, the evocative sounds of polyphonic song, the social rituals and knowledge that constitute a culture’s everyday practices.

These, along with a handful of monumental architecture and archaeological sites, are the stuff that makes up UNESCO’s prestigious World Heritage list. But the organization also spends time cataloguing humanity’s less-heralded cultural heritage, a dizzying array of practices ranging from truffle hunting to capoeira. There are more than seven hundred “elements” on the intangible heritage lists, kaleidoscopically displayed in an interactive tool on the organization’s website, and browsing them can feel like wandering through a World’s Fair organized by magical realists. Who knew that Mongolian herders coax orphaned camels to adopt them by serenading them at twilight?

Cultural heritage is a cultural product that has an outstanding universal value, including historic, architectural, artistic, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological significance. It also includes tangible heritage (artefacts, monuments and buildings); intangible heritage (oral history, performing arts, traditional craftsmanship, social customs, representations, rites and rituals, and knowledge and skills related to nature and the universe), and natural heritage (the geological or geographical features and landscapes of a place).

Nations, the least-lovable genre of intangible heritage, regularly bicker over what should be included on the lists. Iran and Azerbaijan are at odds over polo, for instance; Russia denounces Ukraine’s refusal to share its borscht. And the lists themselves are dotted with petty duplicates submitted by neighbors, each claiming that their own heritage is being trampled on by the others’.

The international community has taken notice of this phenomenon, recognizing the need to safeguard and maintain cultural heritage as one of the specific targets of the Sustainable Development Goals. In addition to the obvious financial challenges, such as a decline in tourism and declining maintenance funding, threats to cultural heritage are growing because of globalization, climate change, massification of tourism, and the erosion of local communities’ ability to preserve their own cultural heritage.

Communities are responsible for the identification and preservation of their own heritage, and should be involved in its management. In this context, UNESCO has developed a set of principles for the safeguarding and protection of cultural heritage, which emphasizes the role of local communities in the production and transmission of cultural heritage, and aims to ensure that communities, groups, and individuals are actively engaged in the identification and management of their cultural heritage. It is only through this involvement that heritage can be preserved for future generations to enjoy and benefit from. Consequently, a participatory approach is the most effective for cultural heritage conservations. It is through this engagement that local cultural heritage is kept alive and can be used as a catalyst for economic, social, and sustainable development.