Cultural Heritage Preservation and Philanthropy

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Cultural/Historical Contexts
Archaeological sites in Syria. The sea-port Haitian town of Port-au-Prince. Your grandmother’s spaghetti sauce recipe. Within all three is the sapient history of the generations of the past, intended to better the generations of the future.

Written by Nick Heinzen



The concept of cultural heritage is the legacy of the physical artifacts (buildings, monuments, works of art, written texts) and the intangible attributes (folklore, traditions, language) of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations (UNESCO, 1). Distinctive and irreplaceable, cultural heritage is a crucial element in the fabric of the peoples of our world (UNESCO, 2).

The catalyst for preserving cultural heritage ranges from proactive efforts to reactive responses. Proactive efforts might include the mapping of cultural heritage sites using open-source software like Arches. Armed conflict like the modern conflicts in the Middle East and natural disasters like the 2010 Haitian earthquake can devastate areas of our world, risking the existence of their cultural heritage in both the physical form and in the intangible, which is carried through the lives of their people.

Through literal Greek translation, philanthropy means “love of mankind”. As leaders in the field, Robert Payton and Michael Moody provide a deepened meaning for us, defining philanthropy as “voluntary action for the public good” (2008, 27).


Historic Roots

As citizens of the world, humans have responded to universal problems with philanthropy throughout all of history. When wars plague nations or hurricanes wreak havoc, it is a truly human response to act in a way that we believe will improve quality of life or relieve suffering because we as humans are capable of imagining a better existence and capable of having concern for others (Payton and Moody 2008, 60).

The idea of preservation is integral to the definition of cultural heritage, as in order for cultural heritage to exist, it must have been passed on by previous generations and preserved by the current generation. However, throughout different periods and places in history, the “present generation” of the time has placed varying value on elements of their cultural heritage.

For example, in the early 1900s, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, establishing the National Park Service. At that point in time, great value was placed on preserving national parks, battlefields, and historic places in the U.S. Conversely, there has been less value placed on historic sites of religious importance in the Saudi town of Mecca over the past thirty years. These sites have been demolished to make way for the construction of more modern amenities, like hotels, apartment buildings, and parking lots (Howden 2005).

American communities have started taking ownership in recognizing their cultural heritage by designating their communities as cultural districts at the local, state, and federal levels. Cultural districts uniquely reflect the character and community assets of a certain geographical place, embracing its historical significance and celebrating the cultural clusters innately existing within its boundaries. Some districts occur naturally, whereas others are strategically planned, to spur economic development for example.



It is important to spend the time and energy to protect cultural heritage sites, especially in moments where people are suffering due to a humanitarian crisis. Ms. Corine Wegener, a Cultural Heritage Preservation Officer at the Smithsonian Institution, believes that the two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, she believes the work to do both is complementary: “saving people also means saving their heritage … you can’t separate these things” (Stiffman 2015).

Many questions arise around who is ultimately responsible for the preservation of cultural heritage. Are national governments or nonprofits responsible? Are individuals responsible for their own heritage or is it a shared effort for many across the world? Is it our responsibility to preserve another nation’s culture? One school of thought believes that the responsibility falls on us all, and encourages the preservation and presentation of cultural heritage for the purpose of education. For example, museums can collect pieces of cultural heritage and display them for guests to learn more about that culture. Others believe that cultural heritage should be returned to its rightful origin and it is the responsibility of their people to preserve it.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The concept of cultural heritage is philanthropic at its core, as its purpose is to preserve what is intrinsic for the betterment of future generations. Because of the previous generations’ choice to preserve their cultural heritage, we can build upon their learnings and make advancements to benefit all of society.

Outside of this ancient, generational transition, deliberate efforts to preserve cultural heritage made by voluntary associations has grown with the ever-growing presence of the nonprofit sector. For example, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is a privately funded, nonprofit organization founded in 1949 that has named over 300 U.S. sites, such as Mount Rushmore or the Princeton Battlefield, as culturally significant, increasing their visibility and making a case for their preservation (

The U.S. government also deems sites of historical significance worthy of preservation and adds them to the National Register of Historic Places. Aside from the honorific recognition, sites who are on this list may be eligible for certain tax provisions and qualify for federal grants for historic preservation. Owners of historic sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places are subject to a few rules and regulations. Because they own the property, as long as there is no Federal funding attached, owners are free to modify or remodel their property as they wish. If Federal money is attached, the project must be brought before the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation for comment (NPS).

In addition, many of these historic sites are managed by partner nonprofit organizations and because of their nonprofit status, these organizations are able to raise money through charitable contributions, membership fees, and ticket sales. Often before organizations form, the ground work has even been laid for them by grassroots efforts. For example, before the National Parks Service was institutionalized, many passionate individuals such as George Caitlin mobilized the cause.


Key Related Ideas

  • Armed conflict – a declared conflicted between the armed forces of at least two states or nations.
  • The Hague Convention of 1954 - the first international treaty that focused exclusively on the protection of cultural property in armed conflict. As of March 2016, 127 states are party to the treaty (UNESCO, 3).
  • Humanitarian crisis - an event or series of events that represents a critical threat to the health, safety, security or wellbeing of a community or other large group of people (Humanitarian Coalition).
  • Repatriation – the act of returning cultural heritage to its rightful origin, usually having been looted previously.


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Simon Thurley (1962 – present) – English academic and historian who developed the Heritage Cycle, which depicts the process of finding and valuing cultural heritage as a part of our lives (Thurley 2005).
  • President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) – 28th president of the United States who signed the National Park Service Organic Act, establishing the National Park Service, which manages U.S. national parks, many American national monuments, and other conservation and historical properties (National Park Service).


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Getty Conservation Institute and World Monuments Fund – Jointly developed the Arches Project, an open-source software platform for cultural heritage inventory and management – (
  • The National Trust – Formed in 1895 with a purpose to look after Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty permanently for the benefit of the nation across England, Wales and Northern Ireland – (
  • National Trust for Historic Preservation - Founded in 1949 to support the preservation of America’s diverse historic buildings, neighborhoods, and heritage through its programs, resources, and advocacy (
  • U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield – Committed to the protection of cultural property worldwide during armed conflict founded in 2006 in response to heritage
  • catastrophes around the world (
  • UNESCO – United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization is a U.N. agency contributing to international peace and security by promoting international collaboration through educational, scientific, and cultural reforms in order to increase universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and human rights (
  • Smithsonian – The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum, research, and education complex, administered by the U.S. government. The institution’s facilities range across many states, though many are located in Washington D.C. (


Reflection Question - What element of your own cultural heritage do you value and intend to preserve for future generations?



  • Arches Project. What is Arches?
  • Howden, Daniel. “The destruction of Mecca: Saudi hardliners are wiping out their own heritage.” Independent, August 5, 2005, http://www.independent.couk/news/world/middle-east/the-destruction-of-mecca-saudi-hardliners-are-wiping-out-their-own-heritage-304029.html
  • Humanitarian Coalition. What is a humanitarian emergency?
  • National Park Service. National Register of Historic Places Program: Frequently Asked Questions. Alias NPS.
  • National Park Service. National Park Service History.
  • National Trust for Historic Preservation. Places.
  • Payton, Robert L. and Michael L. Moody. Understanding Philanthropy:  Its Meaning and Mission. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008, 27, 60.
  • Thurley, Simon. Into the future. Our strategy for 2005-2010. Conservation Bulletin, English Heritage, 2005, 49.
  • Stiffman, Eden. “Cultural Preservation in Disasters, War Zones Presents Big Challenges.” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 11, 2015,
  • United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO, 1).
  • Tangible Cultural Heritage.
  • United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO, 2). Recommendation concerning the Preservation of Cultural Property Endangered by Public or Private works.
  • United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO, 3). Protocol to the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. The Hague, 14 May 1954.

This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.