What is heritage? And why does it matter?



World Heritage Day is celebrated each year in April. Also known as International Monuments and Sites Day, 18 April is a special day to celebrate the diversity of heritage throughout the world.

At the Ashburton Museum, we think about heritage all the time. Our staff and volunteers are fortunate to work around historic objects and archives. We are surrounded by heritage every day, and are privileged to experience history-in-the-making as new exhibitions are developed.

World Heritage Day had us thinking even more about heritage, and why history matters.


What is heritage?

It’s easy to take heritage for granted – it’s something we see every day but often goes unnoticed as it’s so much a part of the present. Maori place names, features of the landscape, street names that commemorative past residents, and buildings that enhance the appeal of our district, are all part of heritage. Each of these are also ways in which we experience the past daily.

Heritage is seen in landscape, buildings, monuments and sites. It also includes things such as historic objects, books, vehicles and artworks. All are cultural heritage. Smaller or less fixed objects are called movable cultural heritage.

Intangible culture is also important. This includes traditions, language, tikanga (ways of doing things) and knowledge. Natural heritage covers culturally significant landscapes, and biodiversity.


Behind the scenes at the museum

At the museum thinking about heritage is central to what we do. A lot of our time is spent caring for collection items. We take care to catalogue items and ensure they are stored professionally, so that over time they do not deteriorate and are preserved for future and present generations.

We do this work so that people now and in the future will be able to find, understand and enjoy the material culture of our society. Cataloguing helps us to know where everything is. It’s an important consideration at Ashburton Museum because we have a large and significant collection. We have over 20,000 objects, 1500 metres of archives and over six million photographic frames in our collection – we need to know where to find them!

Our catalogue is also a record of everything we know about each item. Who made it, who used it, where it came from, how it was used, and who gave it to the collection, all add to the story of each item. Knowing as much as we can about every item helps us to better tell that story. These stories help us to develop more interesting exhibitions and share our discoveries with visitors.


Museums and heritage

Even more important than collections is what a museum does with them. Collections are there to be shared with others. They are like a resource from which museums can develop exhibitions, share stories with people, and reflect the interests and history of the community. Every day, the aim is to welcome people and share heritage with them.

The collection is also an important source of information for the many researchers who visit. Ashburton Museum has a full-time archivist, who is available to help people with research enquiries. Daily, people call in to see us to learn more about their family, home or local history.

Museums do many things. They are welcoming places to enjoy spending time with friends and family. They are a good place to be curious, and to share ideas and interests. We get to talk about the things we are see. We learn new things. We also get to experience the past, and to think about the world today in new ways and contexts.

Maori artefacts from the Whakanui collection at Ashburton Museum.jpg


  1. Maori artefacts from the Whakanui Collection at Ashburton Museum. ©Ashburton Museum.

Author: Tanya Zoe Robinson

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