Understanding what is heritage and how is it valued?

A quick overview of key ideas.

We view heritage as processual and emergent, as opposed to static objects to be only preserved (Harvey and Perry, 2015). Tangible climate change impacts on heritage, such as eroding coastal archaeology, chemical weathering and thawing permafrost/landscape change, have dominated publications (Hollesen et al., 2018; Dawson et al., 2020). Yet impacts on heritage intersects with a far wider range of objects and practices (Sandford 2019; DeSilvey and Harrison, 2020).

Intangible heritage, such as traditional belief systems, are also a resource of environmental knowledge for future adaptation (Adger et al 2012). Archaeologists and heritage experts have benefited from comparing different cultural sites, focusing on the diversity of heritage sites, landscapes and traditions and what can be learned from such examples (Hambrecht and Rockman, 2017).

Sharing knowledge of the range of impacts, threats and opportunities associated with multiple types of heritage in different geographical contexts is important developing effective frameworks for heritage protection and as well as community resilience (Fluck and Wiggins, 2017).

Effective dialogue between heritage experts and community members has been acknowledged as a vital step in understanding the role of heritage for climate change adaptation (Hambrecht and Rockman, 2017; Rockman and Hritz, 2020; Rick and Sandweiss, 2020), and there is potential to learn from the diversity of heritage nationally and internationally (Dawson et al., 2020).

What is heritage?

Heritage has been described as “all things to all people”. As we have noted hertiage can be tangible (e.g., buildings, sites, objects) and intangible (e.g., ritual practices, music, belief system). The difficulty tying the concept down makes the scope of heritage hard to define and difficult to contain within one discipline of study.

The disciplines conventionally associated with heritage have focused on the preservation and conservation of historical artefacts, sites, and landscapes. For example, in museums vast resources are dedicated to the conservation of historic artefacts; in national parks resource managers monitor impacts cultural and natural heritage at the landscape scale; and architects and planners’ monitor impacts on buildings and cityscapes.

The extensiveness of heritage assets require the concerted efforts of international organisation like the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) to evaluate and monitor heritage ranging from internationally recognised—World Heritage—to intangible heritage at the local scale.

In practice, organisations such as the National Park Service of the United States and Historic Environment Scotland are responsible for the protection and management of cultural heritage at the national scale.

Finally, we can think about heritage at the local scale; the scale at which it is lived, valued, imagined, and consumed.

In the video below, researchers involved in the CRITICAL project consider what heritage means to them. Note how heritage varies significantly between members of the project team. This can be explained by different personal experiences, disciplinary training, research cultures, and national ideas of heritage.

History of heritage

Modern heritage studies and World Heritage dates to the aftermath of the Second World War and the establishment of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1945. Set in the background of destruction across Europe and Southeast Asia, UNESCO was established with the aim of promoting peace, intercultural understanding, and humanitarianism through international cooperation in education, sciences, art, and culture.

The promotion of culture and the arts was a reaction to the destruction caused by the conflict, leading to the adoption of the World Heritage Convention in 1972 (‘Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage’).

This convention sought to protect and manage listed sites with technical and management expertise from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN, est. 1948), the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS, est. 1965), and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICROM, est. 1956).

The influence of the World Heritage Convention has been palpable – especially in Western Europe and North America – with a significant ‘boom’ since the 1970s. Since the 1960s and 1970s in Britain, with membership of heritage organisations such as the National Trust and attendance figures at the British Museum increasing exponentially—with similar attendance figures associated with National Parks and Smithsonian Museums in the United States.

Public attendance of cultural history museums and heritage sites remain consistently popular, with museums and cultural heritage sites topping most national attendance registers (see for example Association for Scottish Visitor Attractions for data).

In the last 10 years, increased attention has been drawn to the impacts of climate change on cultural and natural heritage. This has most recently been highlighted in the Future of Our Past report by ICOMOS (2019) and the acknowledgement of cultural heritage impacts in Working Group Two of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Report Six (IPCC, 2022). Links to these resources can be found below.

The video below provides an historical overview and considers the following discussion points:

  • What is international cultural heritage?
  • What role can cultural heritage play in IPCC reports?
  • How do we resolve issues of representation (power relations), a diversity of values (plurality) and climate risk (uncertainty)?

We encourage you to consider these questions as you watch the video.

Heritage management

How are heritage resources managed? What risks does climate change create for cultural heritage in both its tangible and intangible form? The most recognisable example of heritage management can be found in the UNESCO World Heritage Convention of 1972:

Protection and management of World Heritage properties should ensure that their Outstanding Universal Value, including the conditions of integrity and/or authenticity at the time of inscription, are sustained or enhanced over time.

This includes a comprehensive plan for each site on the World Heritage List to monitor, resource and preserve sites—including expert training for site management staff—thus achieving their safeguarding. The Budapest Declaration of 2002 recognised connection between heritage and sustainable development, including the necessary role of local communities in the management of heritage sites and the role of tourism in social and economic development.

Taking this further, the Amsterdam Conference on Linking Universal Values and Local Values recommended consistent local participation to enable the local value of place. This, in turn, recognises the importance of local values in the management of World Heritage Sites in what is termed the “fifth C” of the “Five Cs” strategic objectives from the World Heritage Convention: credibility, conservation, capacity-building, communication, and community.

Further readings & resources

ICOMOS Futures of Our Past: https://www.icomos.org/en/77-articles-en-francais/59522-icomos-releases-future-of-our-pasts-report-to-increase-engagement-of-cultural-heritage-in-climate-action

IPCC Assessment Report Six: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sixth-assessment-report-working-group-ii/

Hambrecht, G. and Rockman, M., 2017. International approaches to climate change and cultural heritage. American Antiquity82(4), pp.627-641. Open Access

Harrison, R., 2013. Heritage: Critical Approaches. Routledge.