How to Define “Cultural Heritage”: An Intern’s Brief Reflection on a Summer Well-Spent

Published: September 17, 2018


Olivia Grabowsky, Carnegie Mellon University

I am a graduate student studying arts management, which is both a blessing and a curse. In a field offering such a wide array of courses of study and career options, it took me quite a while to decide that I wanted to focus on heritage preservation and policy (which may seem like a far cry from my chosen graduate path, but is actually closely linked). Working at the Penn Museum Cultural Heritage Center for the summer solidified my aim to enter into the cultural heritage preservation sphere, in which I have now gained new connections and friends for the future.

This summer, I learned a lot about the effects of conflict on a ground level. Through researching both past and ongoing issues in conflicts in Syria, Mali, Bosnia, Georgia, and Moldova, my colleagues and I were able to catch a glimpse of underlying problems that have caused rifts that are still visible today. Some of the wars we studied may be in the past, but in many cases the ideas behind the violence that spurred them are still rampant. For instance, tensions between the Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats are still very visible in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s executive branch, which consists of three ethnically divided presidents, as well as in the country’s educational system, which is in turn controlled by each of the country’s three administrative districts separately in strong opposition of ethnic equality.

This internship also urged me to reassess my previous definition of the term “cultural heritage.” Of course, my colleagues and I researched many beautiful sites that would immediately be recognized as objects of world heritage – castles and fortresses, historical homes, museums, and of course famous ruins such as the destroyed site of Palmyra in Syria. It is imperative to note, however, that these were not the only sites we characterized to be of importance. Places of worship, marketplaces, murals, cemeteries, memorials, and many more sites were defined as heritage as well – objects that reflect the traditions, stories, and memory of a group of people. Indeed, the term “cultural heritage” cannot be limited to large, famous built heritage that drives tourism; rather, it should denote any site that is of value – whether of religious, traditional, popular, or cultural importance, either currently in-use or otherwise.

Ultimately, the decision to denote each place or object as an example of cultural heritage was left in the interns’ hands, though each of us found differences in our definitions of the term and about the way to mark this distinction in our spreadsheets. It would have been helpful to have more guidance regarding a more concrete ranking system to form a more cohesive, unified dataset, but we made do and classified a surprisingly large collection of sites.

So, then, how do you define “cultural heritage”? It’s a question with an answer that is difficult to succinctly and adequately put into words, and certainly much too broad to be able to write here. I certainly did not come close to finding a perfect conclusion, even after an entire summer of rummaging through relevant articles, academic opinions, and research on the subject. But that’s what’s exciting about this field – as questions like these arise, more and more conversations are sparked to ultimately exchange ideas and help us all understand each other a little more.