Cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes that characterize and identify the distinctiveness of a society. It includes works of art, music, literature, archaeological and historical objects as well as buildings and monuments.
It also includes intangible aspects of human cultures, such as traditions, performing arts, social manners, knowledge and skills transmitted from generation to generation within a community. It is a very important part of a nation’s culture and its loss can be devastating during conflict or disaster, especially for intangible aspects such as oral traditions, rituals, knowledge, folklore, traditional craftsmanship, artisanal techniques, representations, etc.
The term cultural heritage has come into common usage over the past century or so, but its origins can be traced back to the earliest attempts at preserving, recording and presenting human culture through a variety of disciplines including antiquarians, historians, archaeologists, ethnographers, museum curators and archivists (Cleere 1996; Merryman 1986; Omland 2006). It is not surprising that the concept of ‘cultural heritage’ took hold in the early years of the development of the world’s great libraries, museums and archives as an essential tool for the preservation of history and art (Logan 2007: 37).
While the idea of cultural heritage as a common good has long been a touchstone in heritage ethics, it has recently gained traction as a critical topic of contemporary moral controversies (Brown 2005; Okin 1997). However, the question of what exactly constitutes a cultural heritage and whether it should be considered property is one that presents some serious conceptual puzzles, particularly in light of the increased focus on “intangible” or “living” heritage elements as a growing portion of the cultural heritage discourse.
Among the many questions raised by cultural heritage as a concept is how to determine who is entitled to ownership and use of cultural properties, and on what basis (Merryman 1986; Appiah 2006; Young 2007). If, for example, an ancient Egyptian sculpture that is part of a public monument could be deemed as cultural property of Egypt, but a contemporary Egyptian statue that is in a private home could not, then the question arises as to which rights belong to which people in this respect.
This is a complex issue that is often framed in terms of ‘who owns the past’ but which in fact has implications for the future as well, and which involves both individual rights and collective interests. The concept of ‘cultural heritage’ is now under threat due to a number of factors, including the destruction of archaeological sites by pillaging and the theft of works of art, and the destruction of heritage buildings and monuments by fire or armed violence.
Defining who is entitled to claim cultural property is a notoriously difficult task, and there are often tensions between nationalist restrictions on the export or sale of cultural property and international claims for the return of cultural properties that have been looted or destroyed. It is important to note that a common view of cultural heritage as a universally valuable resource or asset finds support in various forms of international law and policy.