The Administration of Culture in International Law since the 19th Century

A New Historical Narrative


  • Sebastian M. Spitra University of Vienna



Cultural Property, Cultural Heritage, World Heritage, Cultural Property Law, History of International Law, UNESCO, Restitution, Kultur


Cultural heritage has been a rising concept in international law for the last two centuries. Its history has been recounted several times, however, critical legal research focusing on the emergence of this legal idea is for the most part still a desideratum. By reviewing the history and historiography of cultural heritage in international law, this paper intends to offer a new contextualization of this legal history. The discourse of civilization (or culture, “Kultur”) that was present in international law and international legal scholarship largely shaped the legal development. Therefore, a new terminology will be established to emphasize this important aspect. The term “administration” of culture is intended to replace the often invoked but ambivalent character of protection; the term “culture” has been chosen to highlight the connection between cultural heritage and the contemporary understanding of civilization. The two internationalizations of the administration of culture in international law during the 20th century give evidence of this constellation. Although new institutions and norms deeply transformed the approach to cultural heritage during this time, the (post-)colonial and imperial situation still has a lasting impact on this legal area.

Author Biography

Sebastian M. Spitra, University of Vienna

Sebastian M. Spitra is Post-Doc Researcher at the Department for Legal and Constitutional History of the University of Vienna. Contact: This article is a summary and an excerpt of the doctoral thesis “Die Verwaltung von Kultur im Völkerrecht. Eine postkoloniale Geschichte” that was published under the same title with Nomos in 2021.