Cultural Heritage Management: The Past in Contemporary Society

Heritage Values in Contemporary Society (photo: G. Smith)

By George S. Smith

I have been involved in writing about and teaching cultural heritage management (CHM) for more than 20 years, as well as organizing and participating in international conferences and workshops on this topic. 


As a result, I have seen first-hand substantial progress in our efforts to demonstrate the relevance of the past and its application and place in contemporary society. However, there is still much more we can do to ensure that the past has a place and role in our global village and that individuals, communities, and nations are able to connect to their past in a meaningful manner. 

One indicator of the growth in the CHM realm is the increasing number of cultural heritage management (CHM) courses and graduate degree programs offered at colleges and universities, as well as the attention to their breadth and quality. The Making Archaeology Teaching Relevant in the XXIst Century (MATRIX) project, for example, was a joint venture between the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), the National Science Foundation, and Indiana University, Bloomington, to improve undergraduate courses in archaeology and archaeology-related topics. These courses incorporated the SAA’s seven principles for curricular reform: stewardship, diverse pasts, social relevance, ethics and values, written and oral communication, fundamental archaeological skills, and real-world problem solving (Pyburn and Smith 2014; Bender and Smith 2000). A number of colleges and universities world-wide have implemented graduate programs dealing with CHM, including Boston University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the French University in Egypt, and University College London. These graduate programs prepare archaeologists and others to help manage the past. There has also been an increase in dissertations related to CHM. I recently reviewed two Ph.D. dissertations, one dealing with CHM for a group of sites in Malaysia and the other in the Caribbean.

There has also been an increase in sessions and papers at professional meetings and conferences, such as those of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA), the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA), and the World Archaeological Congress (WAC), that have focused on CHM and related issues and efforts.

Workshops on CHM, such as “Save the Past for the Future” (1989), “Enhancing Undergraduate and Graduate Education and Training in Public Archaeology” (1998), “Preserving the Worlds’ Heritage Resources: Public Policy and Heritage Resource Management” (2005), and “Heritage Values in Contemporary Society” (2007), have helped to articulate the role and application of the past in contemporary society.

I have also witnessed a growth in committees within professional societies, such as the SAA, SHA, EAA, WAC, Canadian Archaeological Association (CAA), and the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), to assist with public education regarding the past.

To increase public understanding and appreciation for the past, new local programs have been established. In the United States, the majority of the states now annually highlight the past through an archaeology day, week, or month.

Due to such continuing efforts as these, a number of areas of contemporary society are increasingly informed by the past, including public education, economic development, indigenous claims and rights, political agendas and ideologies, international agreements, collection management, tourism, sustainable development, law, private land issues, religious and political issues, historic preservation, lobbying and advocacy and the illegal international antiquities market— to name just a few. The World Bank, for example, is currently revising its policy dealing with cultural heritage to facilitate better project implementation, more targeted and efficient use of resources, and more effective socioeconomic development and environmental management with respect to CHM.

At very top, participants at the Heritage Values in Contemporary Society workshop in 2007. L-R, row 1: Claire Smith, Lilia Lizama Aranda, Karina Croucher, Joelle Clark, Roy Graham; row 2: David Morgan, Margaret Heath, Ian Russell, Susan Benton (Bruning), Ian Baxter, Elizabeth Chilton, Neil Silberman; row 3: Kate Clark, Arlene Fleming, Cornelius Holtorf, Randall Mason, Row 4: Chen Shen, Katsuyuki Okamura. Not Shown: George Smith, Phyllis Messenger, Hilary Soderland, Jeff Altschul, Thanik Lertcharnrit, Pei-Lin Yu (Photo: G. S. Smith, used with permission); Above, participants at the Heritage Values in China conference, Shandong University, China, 2010 (Photo: Shandong University). 

I have also seen a positive increase in efforts to interact, consult, and work with those who have a stake in the past, such as descendent and indigenous communities. Such efforts have been codified in various national and international laws, regulations, policies, guidelines and conventions that require consultation with stakeholders. This can also be seen in statements by professional archaeological organizations worldwide.

Although considerable progress has been made, there is still much more we can do to ensure the past has a place in contemporary society. In order for the past to compete effectively with other agendas in the diverse areas mentioned above, and in an increasingly complex and global community, we need to increase our efforts with respect to:

  • Articulating the full range of ideas about the past and quantifying them with respect to local, national, and international policies, strategies, and financing;
  • Developing effective means for communicating about, and advocating for, more sustainable and responsive cultural resource management policies to policy-makers and the public, at the level where policy crafting, resource allocation, and planning and collaboration take place;  and
  • Enlisting the fiscal and human resources of developers, national and local governments, local communities, non-governmental agencies, professional and international organizations, funding agencies, regulators, researchers, educators, and stakeholders to ensure the past is defined broadly and applied fairly.

Addressing these concerns is critical if we are to develop good practices and be responsive to crises or conflict situations (e.g., the destruction of the Bamiyam Buddhas in Afganistan) on a global scale. We must also ensure that cultural heritage management is included as a part of sustainable development and capacity-building, and work effectively with stakeholders to create new models, tools, and partnerships for protecting, managing, and enjoying our collective cultural patrimony. Our efforts to demonstrate the place of the past in the modern world will allow appreciation of the past to more effectively compete with other agendas, and facilitate the coexistence of many different ways of viewing the past.


George S. Smith holds a Courtesy Faculty appointment in the Department of Anthropology at Florida State University and is an IPinCH Associate.


References Cited & Further Reading

Bender, S. J., and G.S. Smith (editors) 2000. Teaching Archaeology in the 21st Century. Society for American Archaeology, Washington, DC.

Clark, K. (editor) 2006. Capturing the Public Value of Heritage: The Proceedings of the London Conference 25-26, January 2006. English Heritage, Swindon.

Fowler, P.  J. 1992.  The Past in Contemporary Society: Then, Now. Routledge, London.

Hewison, R. 1987.  The Heritage Industry. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Hutchinson, F. 1998. The Archaeology of Economic Thought.  InWhat Everyone Really Wants to Know about Money, edited by F. Hutchinson. Jon Carpenter Publishing, Oxford.

Lowenthal, D. 1985.  The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Messenger, P. M. and G.S., Smith (editors) 2010.  Cultural Heritage Management: A Global Perspective. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Pyburn, K. A., and G.S. Smith (2014) The MATRIX Project (Making Archaeology Teaching Relevant in the XXIst Century): An Approach to the Efficient Sharing of Professional Knowledge and Skills with a Large Audience. In Sharing Archaeology, edited by P. Stone, Routledge, London.

Society for American Archaeology (SAA). 1990. Save the Past for the Future: Actions for the ‘90s. Washington, D.C.

Smith, G. S. 2012. The Role of Heritage Values in Protecting and Managing the Past for Individuals, Communities, and Nations. Journal of Oriental Archaeology 8: 23-28.

Smith, G.S., and J.E. Ehrenhard, 1991. Protecting the Past. CRC Press, Boca Raton.

Smith, G, S., P.M. Messenger and H.A. Soderland, H. A. 2010.  Heritage Values in Contemporary Society. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA.

United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) 2002.  Capacity Building for Sustainable Development: An Overview of UNEP Environmental Development Activities. United Nations Environmental Program, Washington DC.

Yu, Pei-Lin, G. S. Smith, C. Shen, and H. Fang  2011.  The International Conference “Cultural Heritage Values in China: Identifying, Evaluating, and Treating Impacts to Cultural Relics.” Shandong University, Jinan and Qufu, China, October 26-28, 2010. Heritage and Society 4(2).