The fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris last week has elicited much lamentation and, regrettably, even glee in some quarters. An indelible symbol of France’s medieval splendor in the heart of Paris, the iconic cathedral has been cherished by successive generations as a testament to la gloire de la patrie. One lesson worth taking away from the disaster is that our understanding and appreciation of cultural heritage merits broader application and deeper understanding. Cultural heritage is much more than archaeological ruins or majestic cathedrals. We must and should extend our working definitions of cultural heritage to include not only notable structures, but also natural environments, works of art, and even individual cultural practices. Doing so helps us not only safeguard our rich cultural patrimony, but it also enables us insure its protection and better delineate its importance.
Cultural heritage is an expression of the ways of living developed by a community and passed on from generation to generation, comprising of customs, practices, places, objects, artistic expressions, and values. Driving force behind all definitions of cultural heritage is: “it is a human creation intended to inform.” When I lecture on cultural heritage, I am often met with surprise when I delineate the differences between “intangible” and “tangible” cultural heritage. They are very different but of equal importance. Culture is, after all, the sum of material and non-material culture.
“If we fail to understand how others think and feel about their past, we will fail to understand them.” – Peter Furtado
Tangible cultural heritage refers to physical edifices constructed, maintained and transmitted intergenerationally within a society. (It must have a physical presence.) Built environments, covering buildings, townscapes or cityscapes, and archaeological remains, are classified as tangible cultural heritage. Examples would be the Pyramids at Giza (Egypt), Palmyra (Syria), Notre-Dame de Paris (France), Teotihuacán (Mexico), Timbuktu (Mali), and the Forbidden City (China). “Natural heritage” or natural environments are also categorized as tangible cultural heritage. These natural environments include rural landscapes, coasts and shorelines, and examples of unique agricultural heritage. Notable examples would be the volcanoes of Kamchatka (Russia), Mt. Kilimanjaro (Tanzania), the Great Barrier Reef (Australia), the Grand Canyon (United States), Iguaçu Falls (Brazil and Argentina), and Mt. Etna (Italy). Some sites are mixed, and they contain both natural environments and important cultural landmarks like Mt. Taishan (China), Machu Picchu (Peru), and Mt. Athos (Greece).
Intangible cultural heritage differs from tangible cultural heritage in that it encompasses oral traditions, performing arts, local knowledge, and traditional skills. When I think of intangible heritage, I immediately think of dance as well as cuisine and festivals, but even works of art and cultural spaces count as intangible heritage. Some examples of intangible cultural heritage inscribed by UNESCO are kabuki theater (Japan), French cuisine (France), yoga (India), mariachi music and instruments (Mexico), the Carnival of Barranquilla (Colombia), and barkcloth production (Uganda).
How well societies and nations are able to manage and share their cultural heritage and cultural resources will be of considerable importance in our age of globalization. National identities are built upon interpretations of their past, and xenophobia is fueled by perceived threats found in history. As our histories become increasingly interconnected and sometimes contested on a global scale, it becomes more and more difficult to safeguard our cultural treasures. We can only do so by valorizing the abundance of culture that is all around us. President Emmanuel Macron of France has vowed to rebuild his country’s cherished 12th-century CE cathedral in five years, and hundreds of millions of euros have already been pledged to Notre Dame’s reconstruction. Notre Dame is an indelible icon of French cultural identity, attracting millions of visitors each year, and it is in France’s best interest to proceed swiftly with a thoughtful plant for reconstruction.