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What is Heritage?

Updated on February 5, 2016

I recently attended an Elementary school Heritage event and it got me thinking about what heritage really means. There were wonderful displays of food, clothing, art and aspects of daily life in a variety of countries. My booth was based on the country Wales in the United Kingdom and I included food, celebrations, traditions, clothing and photos of the welsh landscape. Did the things I chose to share about my heritage reflect the culture of the country or just those things that are important to me as an individual? What is the difference between heritage and culture and do they go hand in hand? Does it make us who we are, can we pick and choose what becomes heritage? Is it always changing?

Stonehenge - UNESCO World Heritage Site in the UK

Stonehenge, one of 28 World Heritiage sites in the UK
Stonehenge, one of 28 World Heritiage sites in the UK | Source

Booth for Wales


Dictionary Definition

The Merriam Webster Dictionary's definition of Heritage is

1: property that descends to an heir

2a : something transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor : legacy, inheritance

b : tradition

3: something possessed as a result of one's natural situation or birth : birthright <the nation's heritage of tolerance>

What is Heritage?

When questioned about their heritage many people think about where they come from, their family came from and their links with a country or location. In fact the dictionary definition of heritage refers to the items, titles and property inherited from family.

Modern communities are often made up of people from a wide range of nationalities, religions and cultures and they bring with them traditions, food and customs that they value and wish to preserve. Dr Rodney Harrison writing for the Open University states that 'objects of heritage are things we pay attention to because they are meaningful', they shape ideas about who we are. He goes on to define heritage into two groups - objects such as artifacts, buildings, sites and landscapes and practices which include language, music and community celebrations. He also states that heritage is 'constantly changing in the light of the present as we look to the past to imagine the future. What individuals and communities consider important to preserve and practice such as customs, food and song, create a shared experience, helping to form a personal identity.'

The South African History Online website explains that a persons heritage is made up of the practices and traditions that are passed on from parent to child, from their community and place they were raised. It can be divided into national heritage, the traditions of birth country and personal heritage things that come from our family and environment.

Why is it Important?

A persons heritage is part of who they are, what they believe and how they behave. It can be seen as part of ones basic needs, to have a sense of identity and self expression. When identifying with a particular heritage or culture, an individual is linked to a way of thinking and living, is part of that community.

The novelist, playwright and critic Gao Xingjian is quoted as saying "culture is not a luxury but a necessity".

The preservation of heritage is also a key factor in maintaining a sense of community. People work together to preserve their environment and make it tourist friendly for visitors.

Heritage makes us who we are and gives us a sense of belonging. This is illustrated in the desire of the people of Wales to preserve the welsh language. For many Welsh people the language is an important part of their identity. Parts of the culture are strongly connected to the language, road signs are bilingual, the language is taught in schools and a television station is broadcast in welsh. Traditions based around the language such as the Eisteddford are held regularly.

Bilingual road marking in Wales

Road signs and markings are bilingual in Wales
Road signs and markings are bilingual in Wales | Source

Headquarters of S4C, the Welsh Language Channel

Headquarters in Cardiff of the Welsh language television channel
Headquarters in Cardiff of the Welsh language television channel | Source

What is Culture?

Culture refers to the daily living, attitudes, traditions, manners, language, morality and systems of belief. The UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization 2002) described culture as 'the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems and beliefs.'

Culture is learnt from family, school, religious teachings, the government and media. Culture is different to heritage in the way that it is ever changing. Heritage is what we inherit from the past, whether it is objects for customs. Culture is constantly changing. In a multicultural word, families and communities are always evolving, changing, keeping traditions, adopting others and absorbing them into their daily lives and customs. An example of this in the Welsh culture is the custom of Sunday lunch. Traditionally Sunday was a day of rest, a family day and for many a religious day. Most shops and businesses were closed for the day. At midday a large meal was served with roasted meat, vegetables and gravy. With changes in retail practices many shops are open requiring workers. A Sunday dinner is a time consuming meal, from the cooking to the cleaning up, so with busier lives, shopping opportunities and employment it has become less of a custom for many.

Traditional Sunday Dinner in the UK

Traditional Sunday Lunch
Traditional Sunday Lunch | Source


The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation is a branch of the United Nations who's aim is to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and national heritage around the world. There are currently 1007 properties around the world on the list. The properties need to meet a set criteria be be included on the list.

Cultural Heritage

Cultural heritage can be divided into 2 aspects, tangible and intangible. Tangible aspects include landscape, artifacts and buildings, Intangible includes oral history, cuisine, clothing, traditional skills, values, traditions and religious ceremonies.

Persepolis, Iran World Heritage Site


The Financial Implications of Heritage.

Preserving buildings and customs of heritage takes a lot of money and management. To ensure this is possible heritage sites often become tourist areas, attracting visitors from all over the world. The sites need to be maintained, ensuring jobs for the community and money for local businesses. The site become important for the ecomony of the community and adds to the culture of the location.

Heritage and culture go hand in hand, one is not able to exist without the other. The things, ideas and values that we inherit help to shape the culture and way of life we choose to live. Families pass on customs they value and adapt them to fit with the way they chose to live. Culture is influenced by many factors as ideas of what is of value changes and evolves. Heritage also changes as ideas about what is important to preserve changes with modern technology and preservation skills.


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