Rethinking Heritage in the 21st Century

Heritage can be defined as “all inherited resources which people value for reasons beyond mere utility”[1]. Hence, heritage professionals have tended to see heritage conservation as an end in itself. To a large extent, the heritage field has thus evolved considerably in backward-looking disciplinary isolation, based on approaches in which heritage places to be maintained must be buffered from their broader social, economic and environmental contexts. However, with the expansion of what is considered heritage over time and the prevalence of economic thinking in society in the last decades, heritage has become a means to a variety of social ends – including economic development, political conflict and reconciliation, social justice and civil rights issues, or environmental degradation and conservation[2].  How to weave these different perspectives in contemporary conservation theory while avoiding negative instrumentalization of heritage?

Dr. Leticia Leitao, our first visiting scholar, will be spending the next three months at the Centre for Global Heritage and Development developing a detailed research proposal around this challenging question, with a view of pursuing a post-doctoral programme in the future.

Trained as an architect, she holds a PhD in Architecture from the University of Edinburgh and a Master in Public Administration from the London School of Economics. Currently working as an independent consultant, she has coordinated several projects focusing on capacity building and interlinkages between natural and cultural heritage for the three organisations serving as Advisory Bodies to the World Heritage Committte: IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature), ICOMOS (the International Council on Monuments and Sites) and ICCROM (the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property).

She argues that, at the international level, the institutional structures in place for heritage protection date mostly from the 1970s and 1980s and in many ways are no longer fit for purpose for the societal challenges we are now facing. A clear example is the World Heritage Convention, adopted in 1972. While the spirit and essence of this Convention remain valid and inspirational, its implementation and statutory processes are to some extent beyond reform, namely because of increased politicization. Therefore, we need to reinvent the existing structures, create new narratives and develop new models that put once again collaboration, bequest, and existence values at the centre of heritage protection. This transformation must be informed by developments in other fields such as economics, environmental and social sciences, public administration and complex systems thinking, if it is to succeed. Transdisciplinary research and cross-fertilization of knowledge are also needed if heritage is to continue playing a role in the lives of local communities, rather than being increasingly perceived mainly as a commodity.  Duty of care or ethical conservation motivation is central for the future of heritage in the 21st century”.

The staff of the LDE Centre for Global Heritage and Development wishes Dr. Leticia Leitao a pleasant and proficuous time in Leiden. If you wish to discuss Dr. Leitao's ideas, you can contact her at:

[1] English Heritage (2008) Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance For The Sustainable Management of the Historic Environment available at Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance (  

[2] Avrami, Erica; Mason, Randall; MacDonald, Susan; and Myers, David (eds) (2019) Values in Heritage Management: Emerging Approaches and Research Directions, Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute. Values in Heritage Management (