The Terms of Heritage

By Kathryn McDonnell

Specialized terminology, such as stake holders, the “universal museum,” provenance, or even the phrases, “cultural property” or “cultural heritage,” is often used during discussions between law enforcement professionals, such as Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in the US or the Carabinieri in Italy, diplomats (ICOMOS), lawyers, and scholars, including archaeologists. Although these terms allow us to sustain discussion across disciplines, they are often meaningless to non-specialists. In addition, this language can obscure the intellectual, emotional, and economic impact of the antiquities trade, much like the term “human trafficking” stands in for the more visceral, and potentially inflammatory, term “slavery.” My intent here is to break down some of these terms, describe their core concepts, and problematize some of the assumptions beneath them.

What is cultural heritage?

The terms cultural heritage or cultural property are intentionally broad, as they must encompass a world’s worth of objects, sites, and monuments. If you asked me to describe the cultural heritage of the United States, I might mention Gettysburg Battlefield, James Monroe’s home, Ash Lawn-Highland, or Chaco Canyon. I could also choose objects, such as the copy of the Declaration of Independence now in the National Archives, Native American arrowheads, or the sweetgrass baskets of Charleston, SC.

Sweetgrass basket

A sweetgrass basket

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