Grey Room

An Introduction to Cultural Heritage Law

Patty Gerstenblith

U.S. soldiers with Édouard Manet’s In the Conservatory, National Archives and Records Administration (ID #5757184).


Cultural heritage is society’s manifestations of historical, religious, spiritual, and artistic significance. All forms of cultural heritage—movable, immovable, tangible, intangible—are central to the identities of individuals, communities, and states. The term cultural property is often used to designate tangible movables and immovables. The term cultural heritage is more inclusive of both the tangible and intangible, with the two inextricably bound, as the latter gives meaning to the former. Denominating cultural objects and sites and historic structures as property emphasizes their pecuniary value, marketability, and the exclusive rights granted to the owner and protected by the legal system. The term heritage moves beyond a narrow focus on ownership rights and instead emphasizes stewardship, the relationship to and among people, and the obligation to pass culture on to future generations in the form of an “inheritance” or “heritage.”