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Is Everything Heritage?

by François LeBlanc - Getty Conservation Institute (USA)


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Is everything heritage, or is heritage something so special that only very few and special sites or objects can be considered as heritage?

During the past few years, I have had to explain to scholars, to fishermen, to loggers and to professionals what heritage is. If it can be of any help, I have developed a modest explanation which I would like to share with you.
Put in simple terms, I explain that heritage is what ever each one of us individually or collectively wish to preserve and pass on to the next generation. If we want to preserve something, then it is our heritage.

This of course varies quite a bit, depending on the person or the group of persons expressing their interest. To explain the whole range covered by heritage, I use the following three dimensional diagram (see PDF document). On one axis, heritage begins with you as an individual and grows all the way to the whole world.



FROM YOU TO THE WORLD

You:
Each individual possesses a personal heritage which he or she cheri-shes: family pic-tures, music re-cords, personal objects, souve-nirs, a family house, plants, animals, special persons in the family, traditions, etc. This is a personal heritage which individuals need to recognize, appreciate, conserve and share with others. At this level, it is usually left to individuals or families to recognize and pass on this heritage from one generation to the next.

Community:
Each community possesses a collective heritage which it wants to preserve: buildings, parks, traditions, archives, farms, landscapes, collections of objects gathered by citizens, skilled people, persons with a long memory of the community etc. This constitutes a local community's heritage. At this level it is usually the community's responsibility to raise the level of awareness of its citizens for this local heritage.

Region, province, country:
In the same way, each region, province, and country possess a common natural, built, human and non-physical heritage which collectively it has to learn to recognize, appreciate, preserve and share. Again, at each level, it is up to the region, province and country to define what it considers as its heritage and to care for it.

World:
As human beings living on this planet, there are things, persons and traditions which we consider to be our common heritage. One only has to mention places such as the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, the Acropolis of Athens or Mount Everest to realize that these places do not belong to Egypt, Greece or Nepal. They are part of humanity's heritage and these countries are simply the custodians of these incredible treasures. This is why the World Heritage Convention was created: to help the whole of humanity define what it wants to preserve and pass on to the next generations.


FROM THE NATURAL TO THE SPIRITUAL

Natural:
Thing of nature in its broadest sense. Natural heritage may consist of sites which should be preserved for their beauty or their uniqueness; endangered animal species or species representative of an area; geological formations which explain the evolution of an area or the earth etc.

Built:
Think of built in its broadest sense. Built heritage may then consist of buildings or structures of architectural, engineering or historical significance; industrial objects and machines; transportation vehicles (cars, boats, airplanes), archaeological sites and objects, archival materials, etc.

People:
Living persons may be considered as heritage because they possess special skills or talents such as craftsmen, musicians, actors or artists. They can also be people having an exceptional memory of a community (refer to the article on Japanese legislation in ICOMOS Canada Vol.1 No.2. - it gives a good overview of what living heritage can be).

Traditions:
Traditions, songs, sayings, ways of life, etc. can also be considered as heritage though they are non-tangible.


FROM OUR VALUES TO OTHER PEOPLES VALUES

Values:
Since the notion of heritage rests on extremely varied value systems, from the values of one individual to those of a community, to those of the whole world, at a specific time, and that these value systems are constantly in evolution, it is normal that the notion of heritage is also constantly in evolution. It is easy to understand that Japanese looking at a site or object from a personal or community point of view would not necessarily apply the same values to this site or object than say aboriginal persons living in Canada or Bedouins living in the desert of Algeria.

This simple diagram may help to explain that for some individuals or groups, heritage is more in the community and people areas (aboriginal persons for instance), while for others it is essentially in the province and built areas. It may also help to understand that at each level, it is that level's responsibility to identify and care for its heritage and that it should not expect or rely on other levels to do its job.

It also helps to explain that everything is not heritage, but that there is probably much more heritage out there than most people think. And if a person, a province, a country or the whole world cares enough about something to pass it on to the next generations, then anyone saying to us that there is too much heritage and not enough money to care for it and therefore we should limit the concept of heritage to a few really special things, does not understand what the conservation community stands for.


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(*) For the purpose of the Institute's work, the words "Venices", "Venetia" and "Northeast Italy" are interchangeable, and are taken as meaning the historical Venices within Northern Italy - i.e. the current italian regions of Venezia Tridentina-Sud Tirol/Alto Adige, Venezia Euganea, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the current provinces of Bergamo, Brescia, Cremona (i.e Venezia Orobica), and Mantua.