What’s Cultural Heritage Law?

When I tell people my legal specialty, an inevitable question ensues: “What’s cultural heritage law?” As an answer to this perennial query, this post attempts to define the exciting and emerging field of cultural heritage law.

Cultural Heritage

In order to understand cultural heritage law, we must first define “cultural heritage” and discuss its related industries. So what is cultural heritage? According to the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation (LCCHP):

While there is no universal definition of cultural heritage, it generally refers to the objects, places, and traditions that define us as individuals, societies, nations, civilizations, and even human beings.

In other words, cultural heritage encompasses all things (generally human-made) that are culturally significant. The LCCHP further explains that these things “may be tangible, as in artifacts, antiquities, art, monuments, archaeological sites, historic buildings, and sacred places. Or intangible, such as knowledge, beliefs, and practices. [They] can even be natural, for example, culturally significant landscapes.”

Disjointed Cultural Industries

This broad interpretation is used almost universally throughout the world. Unfortunately, the phrase “cultural heritage” is not widely used in the United States, where there is no unified cultural heritage industry.

Instead, the de facto American cultural heritage industry is fragmented into several discrete fields:

  • Historic Preservation (preservation of historic buildings)
  • Cultural Resource Management (i.e. archaeology)
  • Art
  • Museums
  • Cultural Landscapes

cultural heritage infographic

Despite their common cause, these fields only intermittently coordinate. For example, professionals who work in the historic preservation industry (called “preservationists”) don’t generally go out of their way to collaborate with archaeologists (whose industry is called “cultural resource management” or CRM), and vice versa. Even though many CRM firms do employ preservation professionals that work in tandem with archaeologists, there is still a major divide between the two fields.

Some archaeologists contend that the CRM profession also incorporates the historic preservation industry. However, I have only ever heard archaeologists describe their field as cultural resource management. Instead, preservationists say that they work in the field of historic preservation, which is not a subset of the CRM industry.

Two other disjointed American cultural heritage fields related to historic preservation and archaeology are the the art and museum industries. Although these two fields sometimes converge to form art museums, there are many other types of museums unrelated to art (e.g. natural history museums, zoological museums, botanical gardens, history museums, science museums, children’s museums, and so forth). While the work of museums and museum professionals may overlap with art, preservation, or archaeology, the museum field is typically treated as a completely separate industry.

Another disconnected American cultural heritage profession is the field of cultural landscapes and gardens. Professionals in this industry, who are often landscape architects, probably relate the most to preservationists since historic buildings and cultural landscapes frequently go together. There may also be some overlap with the CRM or art fields, but on the whole the cultural landscape industry is isolated from its sister professions.

Toward A More Perfect Union

The overall cultural heritage industry in the United States is still inchoate, but many would argue that the country’s siloed cultural heritage fields are thriving nonetheless. If all required work is being accomplished with minimal interdisciplinary coordination, then maybe we don’t need a unified cultural heritage industry. Or could we accomplish even more through unification? For example, would it be beneficial to create a nationwide trade association for all cultural heritage professionals?

Regardless of where you fall in this debate, it is clear that the emerging field of cultural heritage law is helping to unify the American cultural heritage industry. By offering legal services to all cultural heritage professions under one roof, pioneering law firms like Cultural Heritage Partners are sending a clear message: since we all have the same ultimate goal, we should coordinate our efforts.

The Law of Cultural Heritage

Cultural heritage law is the law that governs the cultural heritage industries, including historic preservation, archaeology, art, museums, and cultural landscapes. This legal niche draws on numerous types of law, such as land use law, corporate law, insurance law, nonprofit law, state and local government law, contracts law, and many others. If this seems complicated, it’s because it is—which underscores the need for attorneys who specialize in cultural heritage. Despite its legal complexities, I am excited to be a part of the growing cultural heritage movement.

Clint Tankersley is a Georgia attorney specializing in cultural heritage law. Read my bio here.