In our globalizing world, cultural heritage is something that many people want to keep close to their hearts. It’s the common ground that unites us, a sense of shared history and identity that helps to give communities around the world a sense of belonging. Cultural heritage is also a resource that is key to economic development. In fact, historical cities around the world use cultural heritage to create economic activities and stimulate short- and long-term urban development.
But what exactly is cultural heritage? Cultural heritage can be a very broad concept, comprising both tangible and intangible elements. Tangible cultural heritage can include buildings, archaeological artifacts, or objects that are recognized as having significant aesthetic, historic, scientific, or symbolic value. Intangible cultural heritage can be much broader and encompass social customs and traditions, languages, music and dances, traditional craftsmanship, representations, or other forms of expression that are specific to particular groups. It can also include the food and drink, religious or spiritual practices, political beliefs that shape culture and society, the natural environment, historical sites and ruins, and new cultural trends emerging in the digital realm.
Cultural heritage is a continuously evolving phenomenon that requires careful and sensitive management. Its importance is reflected in the fact that governments and institutions around the world are investing a great deal of time and money into protecting and conserving cultural heritage. This is particularly important in times of conflict or disaster, when the risk to cultural heritage is often higher than under normal conditions.
However, there is an ongoing debate about what constitutes cultural heritage and how it should be protected and promoted. One of the most contentious issues is whether the notion of cultural heritage should be seen as a fixed and objectively determined concept that can be evaluated and judged, or whether it should remain flexible and open to the interpretation of individuals and societies. The latter view has some support in the literature, although it has also been criticized for making dangerous assumptions about cultures as static and bounded wholes that are empirically and normatively flawed (Scheffler 2007; Appiah 2006).
It’s also been argued that cultural heritage is not necessarily synonymous with “living” culture and that preserving and promoting certain cultural heritage practices can sometimes be detrimental to a society’s ability to adapt to changes. It’s also been pointed out that a cultural heritage focus can lead to a reduction of the freedoms and rights enjoyed by citizens.
There are a number of challenges that confront the concept of cultural heritage, but there are also ways that it can be used to strengthen the ties between people and foster more vibrant and tolerant societies. In the end, what’s crucial is a balance between universalism and cultural specificity. This is evident in the tension between the pull to conceive cultural heritage as universally valuable and therefore requiring consequent universal rights or permissions, and the push for more culturally specific restrictions that acknowledge the special claims of particular cultural groups.