The stories we keep: Exploring cultural heritage

Written by Tom Flanagan | 8 September 2022

Cultural heritage has become something of a buzzword in the popular conscience, with preservationists, museums and the general public chiming in to discuss what exactly it constitutes. On paper, it’s a term used to describe inherited traditions, customs and goods within a culture. In reality, it’s more fluid; a term that’s capable of speaking to topics covering personal identity, nationhood and more. We asked a number of our experts across archaeology, classical art, music and classic cars to describe in their own words what cultural heritage means and why it matters.

Art. Food. Fashion. Music. Values. We engage with any one of these on a daily basis and yet so many of them are informed by those who have come before us. They are norms, ways of life we have inherited. Things we love and things that keep us going. They are also just a few examples of cultural heritage.

Art is a major example of tangible cultural heritage - the kind of heritage we can touch, feel and possess. 

It’s a term that’s sometimes lost in the fever of conversation but cultural heritage extends to much of what we experience in our daily life; from the art we cherish, to the instruments we play music on and the way we prepare our food. And for those that work in cultural spheres and institutions, it’s more than just daily life – it is life, says Expert in Archaeology Peter Reynaers. 

“Cultural heritage is what makes us human”, explains Peter. “The most important thing we do in life is to create. Some of these creations—be it things used in daily life or truly artistic masterpieces of art—are the only tokens that we leave behind when we are gone. This is where humans differ from other lifeforms on earth: we tend to celebrate our lives through our endeavours and artistic creations. That said, the ultimate goal of us as experts is to make people see why something is really worth preserving and what the story behind it tells us about our human condition”.

Portraits of memory in classical art

Art is one of the most referenced subjects in regards to cultural heritage. After all, art was once the only means to capture life as we knew it, meaning its variety of expression is crucial in what it tells us about societies before us and remains an important tool in conveying what we choose to pass on, explains Expert in Classical Art Valérie Lewis. “In my eyes, cultural heritage is about treasuring works of art, which visually translate the shared history, customs, and wisdoms of a group of people, making sure that we are able to pass them on to the next generation”. 

For Valérie, when we preserve what came before us, we understand where we’ve come from and just how far we can go. “For us to understand ourselves, the people around us and the environment we live in, it’s important to be able to access the huge archive that is the art world to draw lessons or appreciate specific shapes and ideas.” While her specialism lies within Dutch Old Masters and 19th-century art, she believes it is but one of the many artistic periods that came with innovations that expressed the zeitgeist of that century; and a reason why preserving these works of art is so crucial. As a result, professional preservationists of art all have a role within their respective culture. 

“Museums and private collectors play a pivotal role in the conservation of not only Old Masters, but 19th century, modern and contemporary art. By keeping artworks in a protected space, museums and art collectors are able to rescue, protect and display the past. Portraits, landscapes or still lives made centuries ago regain appreciation and a new life when they are exhibited in a museum or at someone’s home”.

Cultural heritage is nuanced, however, and it can also vary from person to person, as well as simply take on a more personal definition. On an obvious level, Valérie says people think of art and music: tangible assets. But it’s everything we experience in our daily lives that we value.  “I believe it is what forms you visually and intellectually: yes it’s the conservation of art, design and buildings. But it’s also nature, language, literature, science and local knowledge. Born in The Netherlands to a French mother and a British father, I have access to three cultural worlds. That combination of histories makes who I am and how I perceive the world around me”.

This intersection of cultural histories has become an increasingly prominent but contentious topic: how do we handle heritage that was stolen and where do we go from here? Valérie says it’s essential we engage with those topics, rather than shy away from them. “Black Lives Matter (BLM), the Ukraine war, refugee stories, sustainability: these are all contemporary topics that have been headlining global news. They are also forming new perspectives of how countries should take on the conservation and presentation of their national cultural heritage. For example, in recent years the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has mounted several exhibitions around the topic of colonialism and the imperialistic influences of the Dutch abroad — a trend that goes hand-in-hand with the BLM movement and the need to address the dark chapters of coloniser nations’ history. It’s a call to restore artefacts and looted art from European art institutions to African countries”.

The beautiful past of classic cars

To the uninitiated, cars may not seem like the most obvious example of cultural heritage, but they’re a lesson in both design and history; vehicles of the past that serve as barometers for periods gone by. Take the Volkswagen Beetle, which has had a complicated history and troubled legacy as a Nazi invention during WWII, while Mini Coopers became emblematic of what’s known as the ‘Swinging Sixties’ in London. This, says Expert in Classic Cars Francisco Carrión Cardenas, is what makes them precious. 

“Every country in the world has a cultural identity and heritage which is reflected in their art and design” says Francisco. “Cultural heritage can be so individual and the design and characteristics of classic cars translate this in a clearer way than most. Take British classic cars for instance: the interiors are usually modelled after a typical English living room, with sumptuous leather sofas and varnished wood everywhere; like a cosy place to watch the rain from”.

Like art, cars can reflect a deeply personal kind of cultural heritage.“It’s interesting to notice that many classic car enthusiasts usually care more about buying cars from their own country. So preserving classic cars is often an attempt to bring back technological and cultural heritage to a person’s country of origin, and with that establish some closeness with where they’re from”.

In some way, preserving cars is about appreciating a time when craft was at the forefront of any design and that slower living can bring us closer to beauty. “Cultural heritage as it relates to classic cars is important because, apart from keeping the traditions of each country alive, for me it’s also because it’s a reminder of the old days when things were done more carefully, slowly, by hand and with more attention to detail. Cars are an example of beauty in history. And that's something worth preserving”. 

Sounds to remember us by

Music is arguably one of the most revered and recognised forms of cultural heritage. Every aspect of music is an homage to what’s come before and a reminder of what yet will.  “Cultural heritage to me is anything we've inherited from the past and that will be passed down to the next generation”, says Music Category Lead Aäron Blomme. “And this heritage relates to music in a multitude of ways. You have musicians who play on instruments that were built often in the past; many with the same methods used as far back as 400 years ago. A violin built today, will most likely only differ in elements of taste—like the shape of the scroll and differences in the shape of the f-holes—versus an instrument built in the 1700s. Then, you have the buildings that create the podium to perform the music. You have musical scores that are used to perform that music. And we also have the recordings, to record what we do, and to listen back to the people that have performed before us”. 

Music is, in many ways, around us all the time. And what we’re preserving is more than the instruments and the way we make them, but the very sounds and way we play them too. “Musicians often look back at the original scores and see what the real intention of the composer was. There's even what they call a historical performance tradition, where people play specific music on the instruments of that era”. These serve as time capsules; a like-for-like recreation of what it meant to live in days gone by. 

This then is more than simply musical nostalgia. It’s both an appreciation of where we’ve come from and a way to establish connections with ancestries and people we haven’t known. “Musical heritage does not know boundaries. Musicians play music of composers from all different backgrounds, nationalities, genders. And the transfer of knowledge from professor to student has been one across generations, but most often also one across borders.” 

“If I were to describe cultural heritage, it would be quintessential. Quintessential, because cultural heritage gives us a feeling of belonging while at the same time building bridges between people. In that sense, without it, we are nothing”. 

Heritage can vary in the way it manifests and how we approach it. But one thread that ties all cultural heritage together is its power to remind us of our very existence, says Peter. “After all is said and done, this finally is what cultural heritage is: that what we make and the mark we leave behind”. 


Start exploring cultural heritage as you see it via our auction pages here or register as a seller with Catawiki.

Discover more Archaeology & Natural HistoryArt | Classic Cars | Music 

You might also like:

How we fell for the lie of whiteness in classical sculpture

What is classical art?

A history of heavy metal in three musical instruments

Create your free account
At Catawiki, you’ll be surprised every week with the impressive selection of special objects we have on offer. Create your free account today and explore our weekly auctions curated by our team of experts.
Share this article
Close Created with Sketch.
Not registered yet?
By creating your free Catawiki account, you’ll be able to bid on any of our 75,000 special objects up for auction every week.
Register now