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Mostly used in North America, the term cultural resources refers to important sites, objects, and places that have some form of legal protection. The term has its origins in the late 1960s as part of an effort to gain the same level of legal protection for places of cultural and historic importance as had been achieved by endangered natural resources. The term cultural resource management (CRM) can be defined as the practice of managing cultural resources in response to some legal or policy mandate. The terms heritage resources and heritage management are common synonyms for cultural resources and CRM, respectively.
Cultural resources include a vast range of properties whose importance derives from their aesthetic, historic, religious, or scientific value. A cultural resource may be a traditional plant-gathering area or an example of high Victorian architecture. The term covers places and objects both glorious and modest: archaeological sites from the most ancient of prehistoric sites of all eras to the remains of 1930s labor camps; buildings ranging from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to a vernacular cabin; structures, including canals and bridges; and places that are important to living cultures, from historic battlefields to sites of religious or traditional significance to indigenous groups.
Despite their diversity of forms, all cultural resources have two characteristics in common: they are regarded as important by a segment of contemporary society (be it a group of neighbors, an Aboriginal clan, or professional archaeologists); and they are considered worthy of some form of protection because of this value.
The goal of CRM is to manage important cultural properties for the public benefit. This is achieved by the application of law and public policy. Since every nation has its own unique and important history and cultures, most have developed their own statutes on national, regional, and even local levels that govern how cultural resources should be treated. In the United States, for example, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Historic Preservation Act, and dozens of state laws, such as the California Environmental Quality Act, require analysis of potential impacts on cultural resources. This process has a general counterpart in the United Kingdom in the requirements of “Planning Policy Guidance 16,” in New Zealand in the Historic Places Act (1993), and in Australia in the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999). Like nonfederal governments worldwide, the Australian state of Victoria has enacted its own law—the Heritage Act (1995). This statute offers more protection than is provided by federal legislation, which is principally concerned with nationally significant resources.
The looting of historic shipwrecks located in international waters is a matter of continuing discussion between nations and the International Congress on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), an influential nongovernmental organization. While many national governments have taken measures to protect wrecks from looting within their own waters—such as the United Kingdom’s National Heritage Act (2002)—few restrictions apply to the open seas. ICOMOS’s Charter on the Protection and Management of Underwater Cultural Heritage (1996) is an attempt to fill this gap; it is, however, still to be ratified by many nations.
As a practical matter, the CRM process is usually set in motion when an activity is proposed and the potential impacts are reviewed by a public agency to comply with an environmental protection law. Building a dam and reservoir, for example, may lead to the inundation of an indigenous group’s traditional plant gathering site—a type of cultural resource. Construction projects often involve three phases of CRM: identifying resources by means of an on-the-ground inventory, evaluating their importance, and deciding how impacts to significant examples should be managed.
CRM is not synonymous with preservation. Since it assures a process, not a result, the only guaranteed outcome of CRM is that the values contained in cultural resources are weighed in relation to other social benefits. Thus, a government agency might allow the destruction of an important archaeological site in the interest of improving a dangerous road. In this case, the project proponent may be required to scientifically excavate the site to retrieve important information it contains before the data are destroyed by construction. This commonly imposed mitigation measure is termed preservation by record or data recovery in the United Kingdom and United States, respectively.
As a profession, CRM is practiced by anthropologists, architectural historians, geographers, environmental planners, historians, and archaeologists, among others. It has been estimated that CRM accounts for over 90 percent of archaeological projects carried out in the United States.
- Hunter, John, and Ian Ralston, eds. 1993. Archaeological Resource Management in the UK: An Introduction. Dover, NH: Allen Sutton.
- King, Thomas F. 2002. Thinking about Cultural Resource Management: Essays from the Edge. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
- Trapeznik, Alexander, ed. 2000. Common Ground? Heritage and Public Places in New Zealand. Dunedin, New Zealand: University of Otago Press.
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