How much do we keep our culture

heritage Site
How it is created and what it means

What is it actually, cultural heritage? How is it changing our culture? And why do we keep it at all? The most important questions - answered in brief.

From Nadine Berghausen

What is cultural heritage?

Famous buildings such as the Würzburg Residence, but also lesser-known sites, unique natural phenomena and cultural traditions and customs deserve protection and appreciation according to UNESCO. For this reason, the UN organization awards the title “cultural heritage” to selected cultural assets - if they meet certain standards. On the one hand, the aim is to protect cultural diversity for humanity. On the other hand, the cultural heritage should promote peace and international understanding. Countries or regions can advertise their cultural heritage and stimulate tourism. At the same time, however, they undertake to preserve the cultural property - to this extent, cultural heritage is also a cultural-political instrument.
UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981: the Würzburg Residence | Photo (detail): Karl-Josef Hildenbrand © picture alliance / dpa
Over the years, the definition of cultural heritage has expanded. Since most of the listed cultural heritage sites were to be found in Europe and UNESCO wanted to create a balance, in 2003 it created the category “Intangible Cultural Heritage”. These include living traditions such as the carnival or the singing of workers' songs, which are mostly not tied to national borders. In addition, UNESCO recently honored more recent forms of culture, such as the poetry slam. Of course, in addition to the officially recognized cultural heritage, there are also sites that are not registered as cultural heritage, but which are viewed and protected as such by the citizens - such as the Freiburg Minster.

Who Owns Cultural Heritage?

When we speak of cultural heritage, we often speak of universal cultural property that belongs to all of humanity. Nevertheless - especially with objects and buildings - there is usually a specific owner. Most of time. Because the question of who is the legal owner of cultural heritage is always disputed. Property debates, for example, are often sparked around objects from non-European cultures that are exhibited in European museums. A prominent example is the bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti on Berlin's Museum Island. Legally it is owned by Germany, but Egypt has also registered ownership claims. One could argue that the queen bust only became a cultural heritage when it was staged in the Berlin Museum - and that it was just one archaeological object among many. Egypt sees it differently: For the country, the origin of the work of art counts.
The bust of Nefertiti, exhibited in Berlin, is legally owned by Germany, but Egypt also claims ownership. | Photo (detail): Eventpress Herrmann © picture alliance
The situation is once again different with the intangible cultural heritage. As a rule, the question of ownership does not arise here, because: Who can claim the right to a tradition for themselves? For this reason, however, it is usually more difficult to name those who are responsible for the preservation of the cultural heritage.

When and how did the idea of ​​cultural heritage come about?

Even if the concept of the wonder of the world arose in antiquity - the idea of ​​the cultural asset first emerged during the French Revolution. Archives and museums were created to protect works of art that were important to France's national consciousness. The Louvre in Paris, for example, as well as national museums all over Europe, including the Prado in Madrid and the National Gallery in London, emerged from this idea. At about the same time, another “project” was developing in Europe, when states began to attach new importance to the preservation and care of national treasures: the preservation of monuments. After the two world wars, it seemed even more necessary to improve the protection of cultural assets. In 1954 the “Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflicts” was passed, which, unlike the nationally organized preservation of monuments, was supposed to react as a supranational authority to the devastating war losses. According to the Hague Convention, damage to important cultural property affects all of humanity and must be protected internationally. The World Heritage Convention of 1975, the signing of which marked the birth of today's World Heritage List, also goes back to this idea.

What are the functions of cultural heritage?

If UNESCO awards the “cultural heritage” label, countries or cities can better advertise their cultural assets and market them accordingly - because such excellent sites usually attract greater interest among tourists. In addition to this attractive aspect, the historical-cultural dimension counts above all: cultural heritage is understood as a place of learning for both tourists and locals. Knowing a cultural asset in one's city has an identity-forming function for many people. For example, the Stari Most bridge in Mostar, which was destroyed in the Bosnian War in 1993, is a symbol of the multiethnic identity of the residents.
The Brazilian Samba de Roda, a traditional round samba dance, has been a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2005. | Photo: (detail) © Rosino ( / CC BY-SA 2.0 ( )
Through cultural heritage, societies can ascertain who they are, what their history, how diverse their culture is. Intangible cultural assets also play an important role, as they are experienced and lived in everyday life, for example when celebrations such as carnival are celebrated, goulash is prepared or fairy tales are told to children.

What conflicts does cultural heritage hold?

Precisely because it has an identity-creating dimension, cultural heritage can also be the target of destruction: it becomes a target in political conflicts if the destruction is intended to damage the identity of its inhabitants - such as the devastation of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra in Syria. In addition, the designation as a World Heritage Site can also provide political fuel: the UNESCO designation of the old town of Hebron as a World Heritage Site of Palestine caused outrage in Israel. Not the location itself, but the appointment became a political issue here.
The Upper Palaeolithic frescoes in Lascaux had to be rebuilt because the stream of visitors threatened to destroy them. | Photo (detail): Jean Bernard © picture alliance / Leemage
Another problem is tourism: some places are so popular that mass tourism even jeopardizes the preservation of the sites. This is what happened in Lauscaux, France: The cave paintings had to be reconstructed because evaporation from visitors threatened to destroy the Upper Palaeolithic frescoes. Residents of popular hotspots such as Venice, for example, also suffer from the high number of visitors - which is still increasing thanks to the title of World Heritage Site. Again and again one can read that the cultural heritage is threatened with museumisation. However, UNESCO would like to counteract this. Above all, the intangible cultural heritage can be used as a positive example - after all, it is lived, celebrated and thus further developed in people's everyday lives.

Does cultural heritage also remind you of dark chapters in history?

In its awards, UNESCO does not exclude cultural heritage that is linked to dark chapters of history. Concrete examples are the ruins of the Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima, Japan, the Robben Island prison in South Africa, the Auschwitz concentration camp in Germany and other sites of fascist dictatorships in Europe. Above all, they should be protected as memorials and memorials for future generations.