Cultural Heritage: A Reasonable Right?
When one is asked to think of what qualifies as a human right, images of necessary means of survival, such as water, food, and shelter, are often conjured. However, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states that cultural heritage qualifies as “an essential human right” (Logan 2012). This may seem like a simple declaration, but it actually carries larger implications. To further explore this assertion, one must consider what exactly qualifies as “cultural heritage.” UNESCO also states that cultural heritage has changed meanings throughout time. It once only referred to “monumental remains of cultures,” but the definition has now been expanded to include different categories, such as ethnographic, intangible, and industrial heritage (UNESCO 2008). The concept of intangible heritage has been paid special attention, as it includes languages, traditional music, dramatic arts, and philosophical and spiritual systems that are the base of creations.
The concept that our cultural heritage, including intangible heritage, is a human right may seem simple enough and therefore acceptable to many people. This heritage may be the way that certain cultures identify themselves; it could be the foundation upon which they build their beliefs, lifestyles, and infrastructure. However, one could also find problems related with the sort of unwavering stability that these pillars of culture imply.
Maintaining a collective cultural heritage is indeed important, as a group often needs to maintain a sense of identity and cohesiveness. These aspects are important for a society to survive and prosper. However, if these feelings are overly or solely emphasized, it can lead to a sense of xenophobia or ethnocentrism. As a species, all humans have certain aspects in common, and, while it is important for a group to be cohesive and have a strong identity, it can become counterproductive when these different cultural groups with strong individual cultural heritages clash. While it is important to recognize and learn from the past, it is also important to move forward and not only focus on the differences but the vast similarities between groups of people. Overly idolizing the past can create a barrier to moving forward if not seen from an open-minded point of view. While certain disciplines may focus more on learning about and from tribalism of past and more traditional times, the future involves more globalization and therefore more cohesiveness between different cultures and groups of people, so it is important to not only focus on the past but also on the present and future.
Another important aspect to consider is that material or intangible aspects of past cultural heritage cannot be understood in the present in the same manner as the original producers intended. Sociological theorist Fredric Jameson refers to a loss of historicity in postmodernity; he claims that “we cannot know the past” and that “all we have access to are texts about the past, and all we can do is produce yet other texts about that topic” (Goodman, Ritzer 2004:475). He claims that this leads to the “random cannibalization of all styles of the past” (Goodman, Ritzer 2004:475). Though this view may seem somewhat extreme, it is still worth consideration. While knowledge of the past is undeniably valuable, with this sort of distortion due to modern interpretation should it necessarily be considered a right?
A contrasting opinion in this debate could argue that cultural heritage is so important for people to feel solidarity in a group and grounded with their identity that it should be considered a right and that great measures should be taken to preserve and / or conserve all types of cultural heritage. Author C.S. Lewis stated that “friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival” (Lewis 1960). Could cultural heritage be one of those things that might not be necessary for living yet give meaning to having life? The question about whether cultural heritage should be considered a human right seems impossible to clearly answer. The best answer is one that balances both points of view, a compromise between the extremes. While overemphasizing the importance of cultural heritage could lead to undesired outcomes, conservation of cultural heritage has significance. Though it is important to consider all viewpoints and disadvantages concerning the topic, people desire and deserve to have a connection to their past, culture, and identity, and preserving cultural heritage in its many forms is one means to achieve this sort of stability.
Goodman, Douglas, and George Ritzer. Modern Sociological Theory. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004.
Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1960.
Logan, William. “Cultural Diversity, Cultural Heritage and Human Rights: Towards heritage management as human rights-based cultural practice.” International Journal of Heritage Studies. 18. no. 3 (2012): 231-44.
UNESCO. 2008. Culture. http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/ev.php-URL_ID=2185&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html. (accessed 01/19/13).