The Concept of Cultural Heritage
(Originally for ICCROM, 1990)
Revised for CIF: 15 January 2005
The extracts in this paper are selected from a number of documents prepared by different organisations, in different countries, and in different periods, in order to provide basic reference material for the work of the Heritage and Society Working Group within the ICCROM Strategic Planning Process.
In most cases, the references have been limited to the paragraph or paragraphs defining concepts such as 'cultural property' or 'cultural heritage', or, more in general, what is conceived as worth safeguarding, protecting or conserving in each case. Most of the recent documents referred to here have been collected and published by UNESCO or by ICOMOS; the older ones have been traced from other sources (see e.g.: J. Jokilehto, A History of Architectural Conservation, DPhil Thesis, York 1986, published: A History of Architectural Conservation, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, 1999, reprinted 2002).
Of course, any in-depth study should foresee a possibility to look through the entire document concerned in order to understand the context for which the definitions were prepared. Of particular interest would be a further study and analysis on the conditions that have been considered essential for safeguarding this heritage.
Concerning the concepts of 'culture' and 'cultural heritage', it will be useful to see additional references. These are particularly relevant to UNESCO's programmes, and therefore it has been thought logical to quote extensively from UNESCO's mid-term plan for the current six-year period.
To start with, however, a reference to the concept of 'culture' which has been studied by anthropologists. It may be useful to begin with the definition of 'culture' by Edward Burnett Tylor in his Primitive Culture (1871):
Culture ... is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.
With the development of anthropological science, the definition has gradually become more complex. In 1952, U.S. anthropologists, A.L. Kroeber and C. Kluckhohn cited 164 definitions of culture, including for example: "learned behaviour", "ideas in the mind", "a logical construct", "a statistical fiction", "a psychic defence mechanism"; more recently, they have favoured to define 'culture' as "an abstraction from behaviour". (See: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1984, vol. 8, 1151 ff)
UNESCO has defined 'cultural heritage' in its Draft Medium Term Plan 1990-1995 (UNESCO, 25 C/4, 1989, p.57), which has been reproduced below. In addition it has seemed useful to reproduce more extensively the account on UNESCO's policies for the current mid term period, considering that much of it seems to be directly relevant also to ICCROM's activities:
Programme III, 2: Preservation and Revival of the Cultural Heritage
The cultural heritage may be defined as the entire corpus of material signs - either artistic or symbolic - handed on by the past to each culture and, therefore, to the
whole of humankind. As a constituent part of the affirmation and enrichment of cultural identities, as a legacy belonging to all humankind, the cultural heritage gives each particular place its recognizable features and is the storehouse of human experience. The preservation and the presentation of the cultural heritage are therefore a corner-stone of any cultural policy.
This is one of the fields where UNESCO's action has been particularly appreciated and noted, as regards both its standard-setting aspects and the major preservation and safeguarding campaigns. In this way it has helped to gain worldwide recognition of the very idea of the heritage, which, at the same time, has been broadened and extended.
The cultural heritage should be considered both in time and in space. First, it no longer stops at the dawn of the nineteenth century but now also embraces the records left behind by the twentieth century. Second, the aim is not only to preserve increasingly numerous items of cultural property but also to safeguard complexes which go far beyond single large monuments or individual buildings. The idea of the heritage has now been broadened to include both the human and the natural environment, both architectural complexes and archaeological sites, not only the rural heritage and the countryside but also the urban, technical or industrial heritage, industrial design and street furniture.
Furthermore, the preservation of the cultural heritage now covers the non-physical cultural heritage, which includes the signs and symbols passed on by oral transmission, artistic and literary forms of expression, languages, ways of life, myths, beliefs and rituals, value systems and traditional knowledge and know-how.
The situation of the cultural heritage has deteriorated during recent years as a result of industrialization, rapid urbanization, the increase in atmospheric pollution, various climatic factors and mass tourism. In addition, many examples of the non-physical heritage are dying out because of the disruption of economic structures and rapid changes in life-styles.
As a result, public awareness of the value of the cultural heritage has increased. This is particularly evident in the growing number of people who, in many countries, visit buildings and architectural complexes which make up the essential part of the heritage. The vitality of associations established to defend the heritage, and also the increased interest in the non-physical heritage, reflect the new life and cultural development. In general terms, through their impact on economic activity and tourism, policies regarding the cultural heritage make an effective contribution to development.
However, the widened connotation of the idea of the cultural heritage provides a challenge for national and international action which it is providing increasingly difficult to meet. The crisis in public finance, austerity measures or policies of structural adjustment have frequently limited the capacity of Member States (particularly the developing countries) to take action. Yet the safeguarding of one of the major assets of a 'multidimensional' type of development which will ensure the best possible general living conditions for both present and future generations. Many Member States have been led to the same conclusion: the need to provide substantially increased resources to preserve the cultural heritage, and to adopt the functions of the heritage so as to incorporate it in the human and natural environment and the living culture of the community.
A majority of Member States have therefore turned towards UNESCO: between 1984 and 1988, 30 States became parties to the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972), 12 States acceded to the Convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property (1970) and four to the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (The Hague, 1954). One hundred and eight States are now parties to the 1972 Convention, which, as a result, is rapidly progressing towards achieving truly universal implementation.
In addition, the increase in the number of international safeguarding campaigns which Member States have requested UNESCO to launch is evidence at one and the same time of the determination of governments to undertake the major works necessary for the preservation of the heritage, of the considerable scale of existing needs and of the trust placed in the Organization to help to respond to these needs. However, the area covered by the programme for the preservation of the immovable cultural heritage has increased to such an extent during the last 20 years that it now calls for far greater resources than are available to UNESCO on its own.
With regard to the non-physical heritage, the place given to methodological studies has been gradually reduced in favour of practical activities to collect material on traditions. Priority has been given to the recording of traditional cultural events and of languages which are dying out.
Objectives and Strategy
This programme's strategy will correspond to four objectives:
- improved understanding of the cultural heritage, especially the non-physical heritage; - more effective preservation; - better incorporation of the cultural heritage in present-day cultural life, creative activity and the economic and social world; - greater accessibility to the public.
These objectives coincide fully with those of the World Decade for Cultural Development, and especially with the second and third objectives of its Plan of Action. In addition, the activities proposed take due account of the need to link preservation of the cultural heritage more closely with other fields of cultural action, such as contemporary architecture, urbanization and town planning, science and technology, protection of the environment, education and communication. Thus intersectoral co-operation and co-ordination in respect of the cultural heritage will be strengthened, as also co-operation with National Commissions.
With regard to the physical heritage, UNESCO's standard-setting activities will be aimed primarily at promoting wider and more effective application of UNESCO conventions and UNESCO recommendations to Member States concerning its preservation.
As regards the preservation of the physical cultural heritage, UNESCO's strategy will be redesigned to take into account the full extent of the funding required and to adjust the Organization's objectives and resources. As for international safeguarding campaigns, the General Conference, at its twenty-fourth session, adopted both a strategy for the development process. A realistic revision of
UNESCO's methods of action in this field should lead to UNESCO's defining priorities for operational action and preparing a plan of action accompanied by financial estimates and detailed timetables. The activities might be spread over the three stages of the Plan.
Training will be focused on the teaching of modern safeguarding methods and techniques and on their practical application to preservation work carried out on selected historical buildings or in museums. These activities will thus be accompanied by direct assistance to Member States.
Co-operation with National Commissions and international governmental and non-governmental organizations will be expanded with a view to finding partners in the work of intensifying promotional and public awareness activities exchanging the experience and specialized information, and implementing technical co-operation projects.
The dissemination of scientific and technical information will benefit from the expansion of computerized documentation networks, and this will strengthen the role of the Organization as a clearing-house.
As regards the non-physical heritage, UNESCO will act as a stimulus and co-ordinator by launching a project for the collection and dissemination of oral traditions, making use of the most up-to-date audio-visual media. This project comes within the context of the World Decade for Cultural Development, one of whose priority goals is not only that of preserving the heritage, but also of enriching and renewing.
UNESCO will actively pursue the tasks connected with the worldwide application of the three conventions and ten recommendations to Member States concerning the protection and enhancement of the physical cultural heritage. The other activities will correspond to the following priorities: encouraging an integrated interdisciplinary approach to the preservation of the architectural heritage in rural and urban areas; promoting emergency preservation and archaeological rescue operations, namely action aimed at studying and preserving the traces of the heritage before they art destroyed by major public works.
The Organization will pay particular attention to implementation of the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage; it will assist the World Heritage Committee in identifying new sites, supervising the conservation of all the sites protected under the Convention and carrying out technical assistance projects.
Evaluation of three international safeguarding campaigns will be carried out during the first stage of the Plan. The following principles might also be adopted: no new campaign will be launched during the period covered by the Plan; during each of the three stages of the Plan, efforts will be concentrated on two campaigns which will be completed within reasonable periods of time; with a view to supporting as many ongoing campaigns as possible, the Organization will seek extra-budgetary public and private resources, and will in particular call upon the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
From the first stage of the Plan onwards, activities will be undertaken for the training of group leaders with a view to improving the supervision and organization of international heritage work sites for young volunteers. Information and
promotional activities will be undertaken to heighten the awareness of decision-makers and the public at large of the importance of the physical cultural heritage and of the extent of the human and financial resources that need to be mobilized to protect it.
The dissemination of technical information and exchanges between specialists in this area will be encouraged. The journal Museum will continue to be published. All the activities concerning the safeguarding of the physical cultural heritage or the development of museums will be planned and undertaken in close co-operation with competent international governmental and non-governmental organizations.
The activities concerning the non-physical cultural heritage will be geared to the collection and safeguarding, in the different geocultural areas, of various cultural traditions mainly grouped around the theme 'the stages of life.
UNESCO will also promote the collection, recording and preservation of languages that are dying out, in close co-operation with organizations and institutions already active in this field (constitution of a sound bank). In addition, with a view to encouraging the revival of languages which are dying out, arrangements will be made to hold seminars and workshops, produce recordings and disseminate language cassettes; encouragement will be given to the development of rural sound libraries, in which the local population will play a leading role. The project for the revival of the Nahuatl language will be continued in the context of the World Decade for Cultural Development.