Role of Civil Society in Preserving Cultural Heritage

Arina O. Beliakova, School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University


Democratization advances development of civil society. Though some areas, for example, the military, are still almost fully under state’s control, others have become more transparent and open. The involvement of civil society in economy and politics is unquestionable, and a lot of scientific research on these issues has been conducted. Culture is another sphere in which civil society nowadays enjoys rightful influence. However, this issue has been understudied. The theme of civil society’s participation in preserving cultural heritage, in particular, has not caused much interest among the scientific community. The present article will focus on describing the role civil society plays in this process and highlighting some specific features of its participation.

Keywords: cultural heritage, preserving heritage, civil society, volunteering

Main body

Due to enhanced democratization there is no field for sovereign states to dominate. The role of civil society is on the increase. The number of nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations, trade unions, mass media and associations of different kinds grows changing the nature of state’s functions. So does the influence the institutions exert on domestic and international policy. Nowadays the state merely controls some fields rather than governs them. Though some spheres, with the military one as the most obvious example, are still monopolized by state, others, for instance, economy, social sphere, ecology and even politics witness the expansion of civil society’s power over them. The civil society’s involvement in the above-mentioned areas has been quite well studied so far, yet there is still a lot to research. However, it is the cultural sphere that lacks deep study, not least due to being often considered as additional and not as important. The present article aims at giving an overview of the role the civil society plays in the sphere of culture, considering its participation in preserving cultural heritage in particular. In addition, it aims at highlighting some peculiarities of the participation. The above-listed ideas contribute to the relevance of the article.

Brief Overview of the Concept’s Evolution

Though some researchers insist that the concept of civil society appeared in Antiquity, a more common

point of view considers it to be a phenomenon of the modern age. First outlined by Hobbes, the concept then constantly arose in the works by other philosophers. The way they all defined civil society indicates the immaturity of the concept in that time, for they defined it quite abstractly as something opposite to state and did not give the description of its essence. Hobbes in his “Leviathan” (Hobbes, 1996) viewed civil society through the categories of security and property. Locke, Hegel and then Marx considered civil society through diversity of interests (Locke, 2013; Hegel 2001, Marx 1927).

It was not until the XXth century when the concept of civil society clarified. During that period it was in focus due to democratization, meeting both severe criticism and advocacy. Habermas pioneered with the idea of public sphere (Habermas, 1991). According to Habermas, public sphere connects individuals with their states. It is a sphere where people discuss issues, form opinions and find solutions. Public sphere is a way to influence political action. For the first time the idea of civil society got some specific features. Civil society became a self-sufficient area with its own functions. 

Nevertheless, the cultural sphere was out of sight of the political philosophers researching civil society. Thus, the article by A. Tumanova (Tumanova, 2013) runs that most of the research conducted in the XXth century considered the contribution of civil society’s institutions to democratization and liberalization.

Culture on Agenda

Culture is often regarded as a sphere of lower importance, which explains why it was out of civil society’s priorities for a long time. However, as the standards of living developed and the influence of civil society over other areas grew, the non-material values rose. Culture sites remind of the greatness of human mind and, what is more important, they construct collective identity. This idea was developed in the article by A. Nikonova (Nikonova, 2009). Culture sites are the pillars of so called “cultural memory”, which is, consequently, an effective instrument to form communities.

Civil society’s demand for greater involvement into the issues of culture is reasonable and understandable. As for the ways of participation, one might enlist maintaining interest to material and non-material culture, finding money sources to restore fragile sites either through non-commercial funds or through governments, patronage and eventually forming the agenda. Forming the agenda is the focus of the next paragraph and of the whole article.

Civil Society as Subject of Forming Cultural Heritage Agenda

In spite of democratization and globalization international community still puts national states in charge of preserving world heritage. Article 4 of part 2 of Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage[1] runs the following: “Each State Party to this Convention recognizes that the duty of <…> identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage <…> belongs primarily to that State”. However, one cannot deny that the role of other actors in this sphere is growing.

Preserving cultural heritage is an issue to monitor at all levels, not only local or global. Here one should refer to the book by Thomas Schmitt (Schmitt, 2011), which poses interest due to multi-level approach. Schmitt believes that authorities at 3 levels: global, national and local must interact to fulfill their common cultural goals. The role that, in Schmitt’s opinion, rests with civil society is not predominant but still quite important. Civil society is to aggregate the information relating to the agenda. It is the sphere that connects requirements made by society and opportunities and resources possessed by governments and international organizations.

Unlike in the past nowadays both states and international organizations are overloaded with information. Yet in 1964 Bertram Gross suggested the term “information overload” (Gross, 1964), which means incapacity of a company’s management to make a decision due to large amount of information impossible to analyze. Supposing that a state can be considered as a large organization, which is not groundless at all, one may apply this theory to states, too. Both states and international organizations are in charge of too many things today, which makes the management extremely hard and even leads to decrease in effectiveness.

Civil society accumulates information and filters it, forming requirements that represent people’s concerns. It helps governments and international organizations stay informed about some vital cultural issues. Here is an example from Russian experience.

In 2012 Yaroslavl’s community was outraged by a forthcoming construction of a large hotel in the UNESCO zone. The city’s authorities did not show much concern about it at first. The head of the Yaroslavl Department of the Russian Association for Preserving Cultural and Historic Heritage applied to UNESCO head office reporting the situation. UNESCO’s attention made the authorities act. A survey was conducted that let the citizens themselves decide on the destiny of the heritage. Predictably the verdict of the citizens was “no” and the historic image of the city was saved.

It is also worth notifying that associations and the like organizations as part of civil society not only act bottom-up, informing national and international bodies of some problems. They also act top-down, interpreting the strategies and expanding people’s awareness of concerns related to culture. So it is a two-way road.

In the article by A. Avtonomov (Avtonomov, 2014) volunteering is viewed as a momentum for developing civil society. Volunteering encourages participation and promotes self-organization, which are essential for civil society. Also volunteering may connect civil society and international organizations. For example, UNESCO volunteer programs are widely known. Teams of volunteers throughout the world help realizing cultural and educational programs. Moreover, there are UNESCO volunteer camps at some of the sites included in the World Heritage List. In Russia, for instance, there is an annual program "Bolgar World Heritage Volunteers" realized within "UNESCO World Heritage Volunteers". Participants of the program come annually to the ancient city of Bolgar situated in Kazan. They help maintain the historic image of the city and restore it. Such programs are a way for civil society to participate in fulfilling the heritage-related goals set by international organizations. Thus they advance top-down cultural policy.

Returning to Schmitt’s concept, ideally the communication between the three levels is open and free and all the subjects are sincerely committed to the common aim (Schmitt, 2016). However, it is the national level that may be both a great boost and a great obstacle to addressing the issues in consideration, depending on the policy and political regime.

In the article Schmitt cites the Cologne Cathedral’s case. Its visual integrity was jeopardized by the high-rise building projects. Both local and national authorities ignored the citizens’ concerns. The situation only changed when activists informed UNESCO of the violations. This case proves that sometimes civil society has to act by-passing national institutions and opposing them.


All things considered, the growing concern about issues relating to culture is understandable, for culture sites are the basis for identity. Civil society’s involvement in preserving cultural heritage used to be insufficient, but nowadays it is growing, though the role of government in the area under consideration is still more noticeable. The precise function of civil society in preserving cultural heritage divides into two aspects. First is accumulating information about trouble spots and submitting it to national bodies or international organizations to attract necessary resources. Second is advancing the implementation of cultural policy conducted by governments and international structures. Moreover, civil society may press onto national bodies in case they do not show enough concern about cultural issues. To sum up, though not being the key subject of preserving cultural heritage, civil society, merely due to its informative function, is a great contributor to solving this problem.


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[1] Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, United Nations Organization, 21 November 1972