The protection of cultural heritage: common heritage of humankind, national cultural ‘patrimony’ or private property?


  • Fiona Macmillan Birkbeck, University of London


Starting from an argument about the relationship between cultural heritage and national and/or community identity, this article considers the different ways in which both the international law regime for the protection of cultural heritage and the international intellectual property regime tend to appropriate cultural heritage. The article argues that, in the postcolonial context, both these forms of appropriation continue to interfere with the demands for justice and for the recognition of historical wrongs made both by indigenous peoples and by many developing countries. At the same time, the article suggests that these claims are undermined by the misappropriation of the postcolonial discourse with respect to restitution of cultural heritage, particularly in the intra-European context. The article advocates the need for a regime for the protection of cultural heritage that is strong enough to resist its private appropriation through the use of intellectual property rights and nuanced enough to recognise significant differences in the political context of local and national claims to cultural heritage.