Preserving Spain’s Cultural Heritage: Challenges and Solutions
October 27, 2023
By José Luis Ballesta Pérez
From the inception of human settlements to the epochs of the Celts and Iberians, the advent of the Roman Empire, the reign of the Muslims, and the Christian monarchs, Spain’s history is remarkable not only for its grandeur but also for its rich diversity. This historical tapestry has led to several noticeable consequences in the present day: Spanish being the second most widely spoken language globally; the internal heterogeneity across the Iberian Peninsula, featuring six official languages; and most notably for the purpose of this article, Spain’s standing as one of the five countries boasting the greatest abundance of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. With a total of 49 designated properties, 44 of which are “cultural”, Spain ranks fourth (along with France) in its number of World Heritage Sites.
Nonetheless, the saying “no es oro todo lo que reluce” (all that glitters is not gold) holds true, highlighting that while Spain possesses a wealth of cultural heritage, part of it remains inadequately safeguarded. The objective of this article is to scrutinize the condition of Spain’s cultural heritage, the legal framework governing it, the existing challenges, and their fundamental causes, all with the intention of shedding light on this issue, which, if left unaddressed, could lead to grave repercussions.
The history of Spain has played a pivotal role in shaping the nation’s cultural heritage. Over centuries, the Iberian Peninsula has been a hub for diverse cultures, empires, and peoples. In this section, the most significant historical phases forming Spain’s cultural heritage will be briefly explored:
- Prehistory (2,500,000 B.C to 3,500 B.C) : The Atapuerca archaeological sites exhibit Spain’s most ancient legacy in the depths of Prehistory. These unique testimonies cover over a million years of European human history, providing insight into our prehistoric forebears and their evolution. 
- Roman Hispania and the transition to the Middle Ages (1st –7th centuries) : Roman rule left an enduring legacy on the Iberian Peninsula. With its grand aqueduct, a building of stone arches that remains as a testament to the architectural beauty of ancient Hispania, Segovia’s Old City stands as an icon of Roman engineering.
- Islamic and Christian Spain (8th – 15th centuries): For centuries, the Iberian Peninsula’s cohabitation of Islamic and Christian civilizations generated a rich architectural history. The Caliphate City of Medina Azahara in Cordoba exemplifies this wealth, with its palaces and gardens reflecting Spain’s Islamic influence.
- Modern Era (15th – 18th centuries): Architecture in Spain achieved new heights of magnificence throughout the Modern Era. Seville’s Cathedral, Alcazar, and “Archivo de Indias” are famous examples of Renaissance architecture as well as Spain’s importance in worldwide exploration and trade.
- Nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Antoni Gaudi’s influence led in an age of architectural innovation in Spain. His unconventional creations, such as Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia and Park Güell, stand as exceptional examples of Catalan architectural avant-gardism.
As may be observed, each stage of Spain’s history has its own contribution to its cultural legacy with unique features transcending time.
Legal Framework and Current State
This section provides a concise summary of the Spanish legal framework regarding the safeguarding of its historical heritage.
It is crucial to start by citing the Spanish Constitution, which in Article 46 states that
“the public authorities shall guarantee the conservation and promote the enrichment of the historical, cultural and artistic heritage of the peoples of Spain and of the assets that comprise it, whatever their legal regime and ownership. The penal law will punish any attacks against this heritage.”
As a consequence of this constitutional article, in 1985, Spain enacted Law 16/1985 on the Protection and Conservation of Spanish Historical Heritage to regulate this matter, which was followed by a Royal Decree (Royal Decree 111/1986). A Royal Decree is a provision approved by the President of the Government or by the Council of Ministers, adopted by virtue of the regulatory power of the Government, which in this case partially developed the mentioned Law 16/1985.
This law, whose fundamental objective is the protection of Spanish historical heritage as a whole, identifies the properties that make up this historical heritage, designates the Historical Heritage Council (the body in charge of carrying out communications and keeping abreast of action programs related to Spanish historical heritage at a national and regional level), delegates powers to the Autonomous Communities and municipalities within the country, and, last but not least, expresses the need to inventory or declare as Bienes de Interés Cultural (BICs, or “assets of cultural interest”) the most relevant aspects, tangible or intangible, of Spanish historical heritage, which are distinguished from the remaining historical heritage.
Under the aforementioned law, Spanish historical heritage:
“includes immovable property and movable objects of artistic, historical, paleontological, archeological, ethnographic, scientific or technical interest. It also includes documentary and bibliographic heritage, archaeological sites and areas, as well as natural sites, gardens and parks of artistic, historical or anthropological value.” 
The law also mentions certain goods that require a greater protection:
“Within the Spanish Historical Heritage, and in order to grant greater protection and tutelage, the category of Bienes de Interés Cultural acquires a singular value, which extends to the movable and immovable assets of that Heritage that, in a more evident way, require such protection.”
It is vital to highlight that this legal stipulation does not imply that those aspects not encompassed within the BICs category will therefore not be protected. Instead, it mandates the comprehensive safeguarding of the entire historical heritage as a government responsibility and introduces the classification of BICs to provide heightened protection for select assets.
The red list of Spanish heritage promoted by the scientific committee Hispania Nostra can help provide insight into the present situation. The list was established with the purpose of highlighting, increasing awareness about, and taking action on endangered immovable heritage elements within Spanish territory. An asset is included in the list when there is a specific threat to the preservation of its cultural and historical value. With that said, the data shows that the yearly addition of properties to the list has been growing exponentially in the past decades, resulting in a total of over a thousand registered sites in 2023. It is thus apparent that there is a disconnect between the legal provisions and the practical reality. Nevertheless, this circumstance can be rectified. As previously noted, one of the list’s goals is to prompt efforts to rescue these properties and improve their state. If corrective measures are implemented, these properties could potentially transition to the green list (properties that have been removed from the red list because the risk they presented no longer exists); if not, they are at risk of inclusion on the black list (properties that have been removed from the Red List because their essential values have disappeared or have been irreversibly altered). The question to raise at this point is why such apparently protectionist legislation towards historical heritage is not reflected in practice. What is the problem and what are the underlying reasons for it?
Political Actions and Lack of Interest
This section examines concrete political actions that can address the root causes of this issue. There is an evident need for an injection of financial resources to make possible the preservation and restoration of cultural heritage. Without this support, the outlook for Spanish heritage appears bleak.
The first among these possible political measures pertains to the allocation of public spending. In Spain, the State General Budgets are approved on an annual basis, and within these, there is an allocation for “Culture.” According to the 2022 data, there was a significant increase in the overall “Culture” funding compared to 2021. However, when the budget designated for the “Conservation and restoration of cultural assets” is scrutinized, there is a noticeable decline of 6%, decreasing from 22.8 million in 2021 to 21.4 million in 2022. Why would there be an increase in the general cultural budget, while spending on the conservation of cultural assets is being reduced amidst the current disastrous situation?
The second example would be the use of funds from the European Union’s Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan. This plan allocates a total of just over 141 million euros for the “Revitalization of culture throughout the territory.” However, the details of this funding clearly show that among measures for the “conservation, restoration and enhancement of Spanish cultural heritage,” action will be taken exclusively on “assets declared of cultural interest” and on “the comprehensive recovery of the Tabacalera building in Madrid,” completely forgetting about any other property not protected as a BIC.
These examples lead to the following conclusion: there are economic resources available, but owing to diverse interests, the preference lies in directing investments towards different priorities rather than preserving Spain’s historical heritage in its entirety. Is some of the historical heritage being preserved? Absolutely. Yet, when it comes to adhering to the constitutional obligation articulated in Article 46, are the public authorities ensuring the conservation of historical heritage, regardless of its legal status or ownership? This answer would vary considerably.
A Call to Action
There is still an opportunity to initiate a transformation of the current situation. However, the detrimental consequences that can arise if the ongoing loss of cultural heritage is not reversed have to be kept in mind. Two of these outcomes deserve special mention. The first of these implications relates to the gradual erosion of a portion of Spain’s cultural identity. Cultural identity plays a pivotal role in fostering social cohesion, and without it, the nation’s development is compromised. While it might sound like an abstract concept, it is a crucial factor that should not be underestimated. Shifting the focus to the economic aspect, it is essential to acknowledge that Spain heavily relies on tourism. There are several factors contributing to Spain’s status as the world’s second most popular tourist destination, and one of these factors is its rich cultural heritage. It goes without saying that if the preservation of Spanish cultural heritage is neglected, foreign interest will wane. Conversely, by diligently safeguarding the country’s cultural legacy, increased interest from tourists and economic growth in the sector can be expected.
To rectify this scenario, education plays a pivotal role. It is worth noting that the political class consists of individuals who are ordinary citizens too. While it is indeed a long-term endeavor, commencing the process of instilling an appreciation for cultural heritage in today’s children can pave the way for future politicians to prioritize it. Consequently, focusing on heritage education could initiate the transformation sought. The immediate goal, therefore, is not solely to secure investments, but rather to foster a cultural environment where investment becomes a natural and expected course of action. Achieving this requires implementing educational measures and widespread cultural promotion.
In conclusion, Spain’s cultural heritage has many treasures that require the commitment of society as a whole for their conservation and protection. Although the situation is dire and the challenges persist, there is room for optimism and positive change. By spreading this message to the furthest reaches of society, starting with education at an early age, it will be possible to achieve a favorable change in public policies in this regard. By doing so, the country will be able to reinforce its cultural identity and continue to captivate the world with its wonders. The road may be long, but it is vitally important.
- M. Bassols Coma, “El patrimonio histórico español: aspectos de su régimen jurídico” Revista de Administración Pública, 1987.
- C. López Bravo, “Interrelación de las categorías legales de protección del patrimonio cultural en España”, PH: Boletín del Instituto Andaluz de Patrimonio Histórico, Año nº7, 27, 83-90.
About the Author:
José Luis Ballesta is a fifth year student of a double degree in Law and International Relations at the University of Navarra, Spain. His interest in art law lies in his passion for the two disciplines separately. Cultural heritage and repatriation issues are his preferred areas within art law. However, he is also interested in other disciplines, among which criminal law, international contracting and conflicts in private international law stand out.
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- Instituto Geográfico Nacional “Atlas Nacional de España” https://atlasnacional.ign.es/wane/Prehistoria (October 14th, 2023, 11:32 AM). ↑
- Ministerio de Cultura y Deporte – Gobierno de España “Recorrido Histórico. Patrimonio Mundial” https://www.culturaydeporte.gob.es/cultura/areas/patrimonio/mc/patrimoniomundial/bienes-declarados/recorrido-historico.html (October 14th , 2023, 11:39 AM). ↑
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- The functions of the Spanish Historical Heritage Council are: To be aware of the action programs, both state and regional, related to Spanish Historical Heritage, as well as the results thereof; To prepare and approve the National Plans of Information on Historical Heritage, which aim to encourage communication between the different services and promote the necessary information for the development of scientific and technical research; To elaborate and propose campaigns of formative and informative activities on the Historical Heritage; To report on the measures to be adopted to ensure the necessary collaboration in order to fulfill the international commitments undertaken by Spain that affect the Spanish Historical Heritage; To report on the destination of goods recovered from illegal export; To issue reports on issues related to Historical Heritage that the President submits for consultation; Any other function that, within the framework of the competence of the Council, is attributed by any legal or regulatory provision. ↑
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