If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

What is Cultural Heritage?

By Elena Franchi
Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c. 1503–05, oil on panel, 30-1/4 x 21 inches (Musée du Louvre)
We often hear about the importance of cultural heritage. But what is cultural heritage? And whose heritage is it? Whose national heritage, for example, does the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci belong to? Is it French or Italian?
First of all, let’s have a look at the meaning of the words. “Heritage” is a property, something that is inherited, passed down from previous generations. In the case of “cultural heritage,” the heritage doesn’t consist of money or property, but of culture, values, and traditions. Cultural heritage implies a shared bond, our belonging to a community. It represents our history and our identity; our bond to the past, to our present, and the future.
Medallion Carpet, The Ardabil Carpet, Unknown artist (Maqsud Kashani is named on the carpet’s inscription), Persian: Safavid Dynasty, silk warps and wefts with wool pile (25 million knots, 340 per square inch), 1539–40 C.E., Tabriz, Kashan, Isfahan or Kirman, Iran (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Tangible and intangible cultural heritage

Cultural heritage often brings to mind artifacts (paintings, drawings, prints, mosaics, sculptures), historical monuments and buildings, as well as archaeological sites. But the concept of cultural heritage is even wider than that, and has gradually grown to include all evidence of human creativity and expression: photographs, documents, books and manuscripts, and instruments, etc. either as individual objects or as collections. Today, towns, underwater heritage, and the natural environment are also considered part of cultural heritage since communities identify themselves with the natural landscape.
Moreover, cultural heritage is not only limited to material objects that we can see and touch. It also consists of immaterial elements: traditions, oral history, performing arts, social practices, traditional craftsmanship, representations, rituals, knowledge, and skills transmitted from generation to generation within a community.
Intangible heritage, therefore, includes a dizzying array of traditions, music, and dances such as tango and flamenco, holy processions, carnivals, falconry, Viennese coffee house culture, the Azerbaijani carpet and its weaving traditions, Chinese shadow puppetry, the Mediterranean diet, Vedic chanting,
, the polyphonic singing of the Aka of Central Africa (to name a few examples).
Djingareyber Mosque, built 1327, Timbuktu, Mali. Two tombs at this mosque were attacked by Islamic extremists in 2012. (photo: Johannes Zielcke, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The importance of protecting cultural heritage

But cultural heritage is not just a set of cultural objects or traditions from the past. It is also the result of a selection process: a process of memory and oblivion that characterizes every human society constantly engaged in choosing—for both cultural and political reasons—what is worthy of being preserved for future generations and what is not.
All peoples make their contribution to the culture of the world. That’s why it’s important to respect and safeguard all cultural heritage, through national laws and international treaties. Illicit trafficking of artifacts and cultural objects, pillaging of archaeological sites, and destruction of historical buildings and monuments cause irreparable damage to the cultural heritage of a country. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), founded in 1954, has adopted international conventions on the protection of cultural heritage, to foster intercultural understanding while stressing the importance of international cooperation.
The protection of cultural property is an old problem. One of the most frequently recurring issues in protecting cultural heritage is the difficult relationship between the interests of the individual and the community, the balance between private and public rights.
Ancient Romans established that a work of art could be considered part of the patrimony of the whole community, even if privately owned. For example, sculptures decorating the façade of a private building were recognized as having a common value and couldn’t be removed, since they stood in a public site, where they could be seen by all citizens.
Lysippos of Sikyon, Apoxyomenos (Scraper), c. 50 A.D., Hellenistic or Roman copy after Greek original, c. 390–306 B.C.E., 207.3 cm / 6 feet 9 inches high (Vatican Museums)
Lysippos of Sikyon, Apoxyomenos (Scraper), Hellenistic or Roman copy after 4th c. Greek original, c. 390–306 B.C.E., 207.3 cm  high (Vatican Museums)
In his Naturalis Historia, the Roman author Pliny the Elder (23–79 C.E.) reported that the statesman and general
placed the Apoxyomenos, a masterpiece by the very famous Greek sculptor Lysippos, in front of his thermal baths. The statue represented an athlete scraping dust, sweat, and oil from his body with a particular instrument called a “strigil, or scraper. Emperor
deeply admired the sculpture and ordered it be removed from public view and placed in his private palace. The Roman people rose up and obliged him to return the Apoxyomenos to its previous location, where everyone could admire it.
Our right to enjoy the arts, and to participate in the cultural life of the community is included in the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. [1]

Whose cultural heritage?

The term “cultural heritage” typically conjures up the idea of a single society and the communication between its members. But cultural boundaries are not necessarily well-defined. Artists, writers, scientists, craftsmen, and musicians learn from each other, even if they belong to different cultures, far removed in space or time. Just think about the influence of Japanese prints on Paul Gauguin’s paintings; or of African masks on Pablo Picasso’s works. Or you could also think of western architecture in Liberian homes in Africa. When some of the freed African-American enslaved people went back to their homeland*, they built homes inspired by the neoclassical style of mansions on American plantations. American neoclassical style was in turn influenced by the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, who had been influenced by Roman and Greek architecture.
Let’s take another example, that of the Mona Lisa painted in the early sixteenth century by Leonardo da Vinci, and displayed at the Musée du Louvre in Paris. From a modern point of view, whose national heritage does the Mona Lisa belong to?
People taking photos of the Mona Lisa (photo: Heather Anne Campbell, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Leonardo was a very famous Italian painter, that’s why the Mona Lisa is obviously part of the Italian cultural heritage. When Leonardo went to France, to work at
’s court, he probably brought the Mona Lisa with him. It seems that in 1518 King Francis I acquired the Mona Lisa, which therefore ended up in the royal collections: that’s why it is obviously part of the French national heritage, too. This painting has been defined as the best known, the most visited, the most written about, and the most parodied work of art in the world: as such, it belongs to the cultural heritage of all mankind.
Cultural heritage passed down to us from our parents must be preserved for the benefit of all. In an era of globalization, cultural heritage helps us to remember our cultural diversity, and its understanding develops mutual respect and renewed dialogue amongst different cultures.
[1] See Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf red style avatar for user petramhartwig
    I enjoy and support the culture of all peoples, but I have a conflict when it comes to acquiring artifacts for my own pleasure - it feels like I am robbing or faking the enjoyment as my own. An example is the jewelry made by our Native Americans. Made of feathers and natural elements, I don't feel right wearing it since it is not part of my culture (I'm German). Silly , I know, but I wish to be respectful.
    (28 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user ccw250
    In the final paragraph Elena Franchi said "Cultrual heritage passed down to us from our parents must be preserved" that profoundly resonated deeply in my spirit. Why? Because generations of culture, family heritage and ancient religious practices are lost to generations through the tearing down of of old churches, and abandonment of schools and public buildings. ALOT OF THESE PLACES HAVE PAINTINGS AND CARVINGS RIGHT ON THE STRUCTURE...what happens then?
    (17 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • starky seedling style avatar for user Dyanna Hills
    Where does cultural appropriation play into this discussion of cultural heritage? This is something that has often been discussed about Pablo Picasso's work that was inspired by African masks. It is one thing to be inspired, but where is the line drawn between being inspired to appropriating artistic styles that are not your own? If cultural heritage is something that should be preserved for us all, does this mean we all have the right to take inspiration from whatever is not our own culture? If so, is this okay as long as we acknowledge it as something that is not our own?
    (22 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • male robot hal style avatar for user R3hall
    Isn't cultural heritage is also a form of history: "learn from it or be doomed to repeat its blunders"?
    (16 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user Tatianna Jaynes
      The way I see, Culture is a way of life. Or more accurately how you live your life. Cultural heritage is a way to catalog how the past ways of life flow into what they have become today. So yes cultural heritage is a form of history. But rather then focusing on dates and facts, cultural heritage focuses on intellectual and spiritual humanity.
      (9 votes)
  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Diana Kayser
    Would you say that all art moves the viewer in a private, specific, way? Thank you for sharing! I love art.
    Diana Kayser
    (9 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Maddy Anjum
    Hey I just loved the article as it spoke on behalf of the people as me who thrive to preserve their heritage but in vain. Here in Pakistan, more than 1000 sites are unpreserved and untouched to conserve. And the level of negligence is too high. I approached many departments but they said, that since I belong to an IR field, how could you possibly be concerned or worried about Heritage? Like seriously! If people as You can assist and suppport our vision in our countries, things would be better. I yearn to save and protect my HERITAGE InshaaAllah which I would do so. Kudos for your article. It speaks Volume :)
    (10 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • male robot johnny style avatar for user TashWill
    Why is the Mona Lisa painting so famous?i'm going to do some research on her.I'm very curious.
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • hopper jumping style avatar for user Ladie
      Although Leonardo da Vinci painted The Mona Lisa between 1503 and 1506, it didn't become famous in 1911 when it became missing. A former employee of the Louvre Museum, Vincenzo Peruggia, and his helpers stole the painting. Peruggia hid the painting in his apartment for 2 years. But when he tried to sell it to an art gallery in Florence, Italy, he was arrested. When the Mona Lisa was missing, a lot of hype was created by the media and the authorities. So when it was returned, over 100,000 people went to see it. Then the Louvre featured it as one of its main attractions. It formerly was just another less-known painting. Overtime, various kinds of experts began to focus on it too. So this is probably the primary reason it became famous.

      (10 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user amdoukaki
    What about the spoils of war? For example, the marbles from Parthenon and many more Greek statues are displayed in London, still not returned to Greece.
    Many pieces of art are displayed in museums all around the world as a result of looting during times of war.Is it morally correct to deprive pieces of history and culture from a now peaceful nation?
    (7 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • stelly green style avatar for user Nandini Chaudhary
    Will the Mona Lisa be known as part of the Italian cultural heritage or France? Because even though it's made in France, Leanardo was a famous ITALIAN painter.
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user Jiayun Liu
    Why did nobody smile for pictures?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      There are people in this world who think that their smile is unattractive. There are people in this world who think themselves to be unattractive, and don't like cameras pointed at them. There are people in this world who believe that a camera takes more than a visual image, but also subtracts a little bit of their being.
      (10 votes)