This paper examines the principles of cultural heritage conservation in pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial Nigeria. It uncovers how cultural heritage is used and cared for in pre-colonial time based on its ‘utilitarian values’ and the ways colonialism isolated and appropriated cultural heritage from utilitarian communities to create museums/secluded sites for exclusive national narrative. The article interrogates how local worldviews and the intricate relationship of people and environment play around heritage and identity, and how the discourses include or exclude indigenous/local people in the national heritage-making processes. It goes further to show that post-colonial Nigeria has continued with the heritage binaries (e.g. local and national, past and present) created by colonialism, which reflects some approaches that obscure more complex underlying cultural continuities in villages/local communities. The paper argues more generally for a review of national heritage conservation policies and practices to accommodate side-lined local heritage knowledge systems in Africa.