AAA Executive Board: Cultural Heritage Principles and Values

July 25, 2016

Cultural heritage [1] is the relevance of the past to contemporary communities and future generations. Cultu#1ral heritage takes many forms including, but not limited to, tangible objects, sites, and monuments or other built structures, as well as intangible forms, such as culturally-transmitted beliefs, values and traditions; language; and cultural practices.

The anthropological study of cultural heritage investigates the meanings and uses of the past by contemporary societies, as well as the study of past societies, primarily through archaeology, bioarchaeology, historical anthropology, oral history, and the linguistic anthropology of heritage and endangered languages. Heritage represents not only the distant past but also the continuity over time of cultural practices and individual identities. Thus, the examination of cultural heritage has significance across all the traditional subfields of anthropology and to the communities that anthropologists collaborate with and study.

Different types of heritage are subject to diverse kinds of threats, including the effects of climate change, development, and violent conflict. The AAA supports the protection, conservation, and responsible stewardship of heritage for present and future societies. We also highlight the importance of community engagement, heritage education, and interdisciplinary approaches to cultural heritage. With its broad view of human history and social justice issues in the present, AAA is in a unique position to advocate and lead models of heritage management that emphasize sustainability and cultural diversity for present and future generations. This emphasis is consistent with a commitment to preserving the “collective memory of humanity,” as outlined by ICOMOS.[2] At the same time we acknowledge that change is part of the fabric of certain types of cultural heritage (especially with regard to intangible heritage) and one goal of safeguarding cultural heritage is to promote and respect cultural diversity and creativity.[3]

Views of who might be appropriate stewards of heritage vary depending on the specific cultural and historical context, and may include contradictory or deeply contested claims by members of communities with differing access to power and differing levels of stakeholders willingness to allow access by other stakeholders or claimants. These may include scholars in any discipline, communities tracing or claiming descent, nation-states asserting patrimonial ownership, governmental entities at any level claiming administrative or management rights, local communities, businesses, museums, or individuals claiming ownership or economic interest, and communities or populations recognizing the importance or influence of heritage in the creation, definition and maintenance of their identity and traditions, among others. The AAA Ethics Statement provides clear guidance on weighing competing ethical obligations due collaborators and affected parties, and these same principles should be applied in cases affecting cultural heritage.

Therefore, the AAA, in keeping with its mission of developing and disseminating anthropological knowledge, adheres to the following guiding principles in supporting activities within the membership and in collaborations with other professional organizations:

  1. AAA’s primary obligation is to support the ethical stewardship, study, and safeguarding of cultural heritage for present and future generations.[4]
  2. Stewardship implies conservation of heritage for more than anthropological uses alone, and AAA should actively partner with stakeholders and other organizations to promote responsible safeguarding, stewardship, and use.
  3. Because heritage is integral to the identity and cultural continuity of communities and individuals, AAA should be sensitive to the differing ways heritage is understood and used by different communities in diverse contexts, and recognize that stewardship may take very different but equally appropriate forms in various circumstances.
  4. AAA actively supports international treaties, national laws, and applicable ethical guidelines and policies offering stewardship for heritage, and supports initiatives preventing the looting, spoliation, wanton destruction or inappropriate alienation of heritage, especially for the purposes of commercial gain or depriving communities of identities or traditions.
  5. In keeping with its mission and purpose, AAA will encourage the broadest range of scholarship regarding heritage across all sub-disciplines and encompassing all forms of knowledge.
  6. These principles should not be applied at the expense of individual or cultural survival, or well-being.

[1] In response to the report of the AAA Task Force on Cultural Heritage (2015), the AAA Executive Board convened a working group (chaired by Elizabeth Chilton, with Jillian Cavanaugh and Alex Barker) to develop these values informing decisions of whether AAA should support specific heritage initiatives and how AAA should respond to advocacy requests involving heritage-related issues.

[2] ICOMOS Nara Document on Authenticity,

[3] UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage

[4] See AAA Statement on Ethics: