The world is better connected than ever before. From technology that allows us to access information with the touch of a button to flight paths that improve mobility, it is increasingly tempting (and plausible) to travel the world to experience new places and cultures.
Globalization is pulling the world together at an astonishing speed – allowing the movement of information, traditions, and even people. You can board a plane tomorrow and find yourself walking in the Colosseum by midday, or floating above the temples of Bagan, Myanmar at sunrise.
The benefits of experiencing new cultures is undeniable – but how does this tourism impact the place, the people, and the heritage? And is there a way to make cultural heritage more sustainable?
Indeed, balancing the benefits of global integration against protecting the uniqueness of local cultural heritage requires a careful approach to sustainable cultural heritage that blends archaeology, sociology, anthropology and management.
But first – we have to know what it all means:
What is cultural heritage?
You may have heard the term “cultural heritage” thrown around or used in media broadcasts – but what exactly does it mean? What IS cultural heritage?
UNESCO, the United Nations agency mandated to work with all forms of cultural heritage defines it as encompassing several concepts, including:
-Tangible cultural heritage:
- movable cultural heritage (paintings, sculptures, coins, manuscripts)
- immovable cultural heritage (monuments, archaeological sites, and so on)
- underwater cultural heritage (shipwrecks, underwater ruins and cities)
-Intangible cultural heritage: oral traditions, performing arts, rituals
-Natural heritage: natural sites with cultural aspects such as cultural landscapes, physical, biological or geological formations
-Heritage in the event of armed conflict
More simply, much in the way you can “inherit” something from someone, cultural heritage is a part of culture that can be passed down through generations.
Culture is not one simple object or tradition but is instead the entire set of items, places, and even stories or beliefs that represent a shared experience. This can include tangible heritage (something material that can be easily seen, like art or monuments) and intangible heritage (something you cannot touch, such as language or dance) that together represent a history and an identity of a community that shares values and traditions. Each piece of this shared culture can be considered cultural heritage to be passed on to future generations.
What is sustainable cultural heritage?
Sustainability is often thought of in terms of the environment. For example, most people have heard the term “sustainable energy,” and have an understanding that it means the kind of energy that can be viable over a long period of time without causing damage to nature.
This ecological idea of sustainability seeks to maintain the environmental conditions under which humans and nature can co-exist in productive harmony to meet the needs of present and future generations.
Much in the same way, sustainable cultural heritage is about preserving cultural heritage for future generations, while at the same time finding a balance and harmony between the cultural heritage and the people who would like to experience it.
When some people see an ancient monument, they assume it is indestructible because it has already stood for so many hundreds or thousands of years. In reality, cultural heritage is under growing threats. These threats can be economic (such as when there is no money to maintain something); environmental (for example, under threat of destruction because of climate change); or even related to conflict and terrorism (the destruction of Palmyra is one recent example).
Sustaining cultural heritage is about protecting or conserving both tangible and intangible cultural heritage. However, this doesn’t mean that everything needs to be locked away from the public in order to be saved.
In fact, the community that lives with the cultural heritage is critical to saving it. Sustainable cultural heritage helps communities to become stewards to preserve monuments, languages, and traditions and other tangible and intangible items, while at the same time helping other people to experience it.
This act of experience, sometimes calls “heritage tourism,” plays a role in sustainability by bringing economic benefits that in turn fund the preservation of the cultural heritage.
What is heritage tourism?
The United States National Trust for Historic Preservation defines heritage tourism as "traveling to experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past."
Globalization, connectivity, and increased ability to travel have led to more curiosity about the cultural heritage that exists in other parts of the world. There is now a widespread demand to visit and personally experience other places and societies.
Heritage tourism is when people travel to experience tangible and intangible cultural heritage. This type of tourism can be extremely positive and help to reinforce local identities, traditions, and practices. Tourism also carries economic benefits than can help to fund more extensive conservation activities.
However, heritage tourism must also be carefully managed. Cultural heritage sites risk receiving huge influxes of visitors, especially in peak periods – imagine the lines at Rome’s Colosseum during summer break! These large crowds can negatively impact the visitor experience (no one wants to wait in the sun for hours), and can also harm the general site conditions.
Managing heritage tourism requires a balance of business thinking and technical expertise in order to contribute to sustainable cultural heritage.
Why does cultural heritage need to be managed?
Previously, people who worked with cultural heritage came from an academic background – think archaeology, art history, or sociology. This kind of training and these skills remain critical to efforts to preserve cultural heritage, but it is also now increasingly clear that management training is essential as well.
Cultural heritage projects must find funding, manage people from diverse disciplines, ensure the intended outcome is achieved, and plan for the sustainable management of the cultural heritage in the future.
As globalization progresses, preserving the diversity of cultural heritage becomes even more important. This global connectively can be harnessed to share cultural heritage sustainably, we just need more future leaders with the right skills to accept the challenge.
Managing sustainable cultural heritage is a task as diverse as culture itself. Some people work might help to solve an art crime, create a tourist plan for a major ancient ruin, or support the International Olympic Committee to create an archive of the modern Olympic Games. A Masters in Cultural Heritage can be tailored to a range of cultural interests and future projects.
Culture can be intangible, but it requires real-world skills to manage. At AUR students pursue their passions but also learn how to fund their own projects, design and manage projects, and demonstrate the value of culture so that it can be experienced by generations to come.