Heritage, also termed cultural heritage, is the full range of our inherited traditions, monuments, objects, and culture – in tangible and intangible forms. Heritage is much more than preserving, excavating, displaying, or restoring a collection of old things. Although it is important to venerate, protect and perpetuate the icons, or touchstones of our individual heritages, heritage goes beyond material artifacts. Heritage is both tangible and intangible, in the sense that ideas and memories–of songs, recipes, language, dances, and many other elements of who we are and how we identify ourselves–are as important as historical buildings and archaeological sites.
Most important, heritage encompasses and is expressed through the range of contemporary activities, meanings, and behaviors that we draw from our inherited past. Heritage is, or should be, the subject of active public reflection, debate, and discussion. What is worth saving? What can we, or should we, put aside? What memories can we enjoy, regret, or learn from? Who owns “The Past” and who is entitled to speak for past generations? Active public discussion about material (tangible) and intangible heritage–of individuals, groups, communities, and nations–is a valuable facet of public life in our multicultural world.
Heritage is a contemporary activity with far-reaching effects. It can be an element of far-sighted urban and regional planning. It can be the platform for political recognition, a medium for intercultural dialogue, a means of ethical reflection, and the potential basis for local economic development. It is simultaneously local and particular, global and shared. And it will become increasingly important in a world that will be defined by an era of migration and displacement as a result of climate-induced disasters, civil conflict, wars and ethnic cleansing.
Heritage is an essential part of the present we live in–and of the future we will build.