Cultural heritage is the term used to describe a wide range of human activities and manifestations that connect people, bind them together in shared history, and help define their place in the world. These include visits to historic districts and culturally significant places, traditions, education programs, scholarly research, government policies, preservation, and tourism. It encompasses a vast array of objects and ideas—from architectural styles like the Taj Mahal to the Mona Lisa, and from ancient Egyptian burial practices to the music of tango and flamenco.
The concept of heritage grew out of a long history of the ways in which different people value monuments, buildings, works of art, artifacts, landscapes, and other culturally significant objects—including trees and natural landscapes—for their aesthetic, historical, or spiritual significance. This historical development led to the idea that these culturally significant things belong to all humanity—and therefore need to be protected or conserved. This led to terms such as “outstanding universal value” and the declaration that cultural heritage should be preserved for the benefit of all mankind.
Eventually, the concept of cultural heritage began to expand to include not just tangible items, but also intangible ones such as oral histories, musical and dance traditions, social customs and beliefs, traditional craftsmanship, and representations or performances, such as dance, kung fu, falconry, Viennese coffee house culture, Japanese theater, Azerbaijani carpets, and kabuki theatre. It has also come to refer to cybercultures in the digital age, and emerging new cultures that will become the heritage of future generations.
One of the key issues around cultural heritage is how to balance the interests of individuals with those of groups or communities, and how to protect objects from exploitation. The ancient Romans ruled that a work of art could be considered part of the public heritage even though it was privately owned, enabling them to legally protect it against vandalism or theft. Today, many countries have laws that treat cultural property as a public good, despite the fact that it may be privately owned.
While preserving cultural heritage can bring people together, it can also serve to divide societies. When a cultural heritage site is used for political or ideological purposes, the effect can be destructive. This is particularly true when a cultural heritage item is used as a tool of aggression, such as the destruction of the Great Mosque in Baghdad by nonstate armed groups and militias.
For these reasons, the goal of most cultural heritage organizations is to foster a sense of community—and this can happen on the street corner where neighbors gather for a neighborhood fair or at a festival celebrating local foods and arts. This is particularly important for communities that are underserved by mainstream cultural or arts organizations, including minority groups and those living in rural or urban areas. These organizations are often small, and struggle financially. This often limits their ability to reach out to and engage with a broad audience. This makes it all the more important to understand how they can maximize their impact.