Heritage and aesthetics


In the World Heritage Convention there are several references to aesthetics, both for cultural heritage and natural heritage.

One aspect of cultural heritage is:

sites: works of man or the combined works of nature and man, and areas including archaeological sites which are of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological point of view.


And under natural heritage, aesthetics seem to loom large:

natural features consisting of physical and biological formations or groups of such formations, which are of outstanding universal value from the aesthetic or scientific point of view;

natural sites or precisely delineated natural areas of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science, conservation or natural beauty.


Somehow beauty and heritage go together. Is it that we value above all the beautiful that we have inherited? Is it that the beautiful is so vulnerable to destruction? I think that beauty and heritage are linked, both through the value we place on heritage and the sense of care we have towards it.

For many this is a problematic connection: do we not negate all objectivity if the heritage value of something depends on its aesthetics? Is what we consider beautiful not too subjective? I would argue that while beauty is not measurable and our notions of beauty change across time and culture and through personal experience, there are nevertheless places (and practices) that are innately beautiful. Yes, this beauty does depend to some extent on our comparative experience. Image

Taking and example from American natural heritage, Yosemite is innately beautiful, but we regard it even more so, because there are few places to rival its beauty. In a field of flowers the individual flower may be less noticed, though it may contribute to the overall impression.

I think that Yosemite is not only beautiful to the conditioned North American, but also to the Malaysian and the Native American. To a certain degree beauty transcends cultures. But clearly what we regard as beautiful is to some degree conditioned by our cultures. And maybe here heritage plays an important role in shaping our notions of beauty. In the beautiful sites we see, we can learn something about how our ancestors (not just our physical ancestors) saw beauty. And when we share the heritage of others around us, it opens up a world of beauty to us. Finally, through caring for our heritage (whether it be buildings, sites, or customs) we begin to be involved with the beautiful things and sometimes restore beauty to the neglected.

I have just started to think about the topic, but yes, beauty and heritage are connected.

At the start of this blog is a picture of Massada, the impressive dessert fortress built by Herod the Great. It may have an interesting history and therefore appeal to the thousands of tourists. It may be interesting from a construction perspective, but I think its main appeal is the stark dessert beauty of this archaeological site.

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