What is heritage?

This was originally posted on the 28th January - but we've been having such a good discussion I thought I should move it back to the 'top', so that it doesn't get lost in the list of conference alerts and other notices! Come on, let us know what you think...

I was lucky enough to be selected to attend the Heritage of the Recent Past colloquium at the University of Leicester last Friday. Organised by Dr Lisanne Gibson, from the Department of Museum Studies and John Pendlebury (School of Architecture Planning and Landscape, University of Newcastle), the colloquium was the first of a series of three exploring the preservation of historical environments.

The day raised more questions than answers all revolving around the concept of heritage and particularly what to validate now as important or significant, to preserve for the future.

So, here are some things to ponder:

What is, and how does something become 'heritage'?
How and by whom is it identified?
Who is it for?
What does it mean?
And how is heritage used?

Answers on a postcard to... :) No, not really. But let us know what you think by leaving a comment or two.

I should also point out that the colloquia are supported by a publically-accessible discussion board if you would like to get involved in the research cluster. Oh, and I'd urge you to apply to attend the remaining two colloquia in March and June - the day was, for me, characterised by a really productive, inclusive and jovial atmosphere. There was none of the standoffish and, frankly intimidating, academic posturing you sometimes get at these sort of events. Everyone was prepared to really get stuck in and contribute. All in all it was a really positive, thought-provoking and inspiring day.


Ceri said…
Oh a subject close to my heart :) Heritage for me is a tricky subject because the language is used differently depending which book you read so how is it distinguished from history (what academics think about the past), the past (what actually happened), collective memory (what 'we' as society think happened in the past) and personal memory, and then there is culture which is also used interchangably with heritage! I currently like Lowenthal's definition of heritage as an 'experience' of the past although he does use it in a negative way in terms of the consumerist heritage experience which wants to experience not learn about the past.
It is all subjective I think depending on who is in control of 'taste' for example the Victorians were generally supposed to revere the past but they also knocked down a lot of old buildings only to rebuild their own versions of them! Park Hill Flats in Sheffield is a crumbling edifice of 1960s flat complex and every week there were complaints from residents in the local paper about how they were falling down but these flats are Grade II listed by English Heritage as such tower blocks are 'in danger' of being lost. I am not sure everyone would be happy about that!
Conserving heritage to me is also quite artificial in some ways, as much as I like old buildings I like the way our towns and cities are built in 'layers' - most older buildings will have additions from other centuries attached to them. There is rarely a building which has survived intact as an example of a specific century or building style. So I am in two minds about conserving heritage - it is good in some ways because it prevents all our past being obliterated but being too protectionist stifles change and perhaps even endangers a building more because it cannot be adapted for use now and thus becomes a mausoleum to the past?
By it's very nature 'heritage', perhaps in the sense of something that we're consciously aware of, is artificial, especially when you think about the kind of active creation/preservation of 'heritage', which is a fairly contemporary phenomenon, at least on a grand, funded scale (if that makes sense?). We're trying to make impossible decisions about what will be significant in the future. What will tell generations to come about ourselves, and how we want to be remembered. And, as the twentieth century has shown, tastes change, value-systems develop, new perspectives gain currency. It was pointed out that the recent past or the contemporary are 'untidy' on many levels, abandoned industrial landscapes for example, but also subject to a multiplicity of voices and contestations. So who decides what to preserve and not to keep? Who's voice is dominant? What and who's version of history will the 'heritage' we're now promoting/developing/creating assert?
Oooooo - my brain hurts. ;)

One of the things raised at the colloquium was the focus on tangible heritage, when - I have to admit - 'heritage' is, in my mind, something less fixed, less definable, less physical. Perhaps I am unconsciously buying into this inherited, essentially Victorian idea about heritage and landscape - 'Jerusalem' and all that. Just goes to show how remarkably pervasive and unconsciously accepted such constructs are...
And yes, it is limiting. Think about New Walk as an example. There are examples of some very fancy Georgian buildings, a bit of art deco and a big lump of 1960s/70s brutalism, which I personally quite like. Okay, it's not the most attractive building according to our current tastes, but does that make it inherently bad? Tastes do change. Think of all those original features and fireplaces ripped out of Victorian terraces in the 1960s, only to be replaced forty years later. Something that seems just so passe and dreadful one minute can become the absolute height of fashion and sophistication the next. I mean, who'd have thought I'd be running about in leggings again? Not me! ;)
Mette said…
This is such a relevant and interesting discussion – in particular because it highlights the key problem in a lot of museum work today – the problem of constructivism in operation.
When we find it difficult to select what to be heritage because ‘what is relevant for me, might not be relevant for others’, we do this on a schema based on constructivism. The consequence is a relativistic perspective, where it is difficult to take any decisions, because all are equally important. However, we cannot preserve everything and therefore someone needs to make some choices.
The only way out of this that I can find – and this is also the solution that I find works best when dealing with education or exhibition work in the museum, is to emphasise and elaborate on the reasons behind the preservation, the process of collecting, which means that the object might be in the centre, but equally important is the reasoning behind collected material. This might actually change displays and interpretative material quite a bit. Two Danish students have done some interesting work in this field, taking my points above even further, arguing that in every heritage choice made, there must be a defined receiver. A ‘This is interesting for….’ must be considered and since we can only know what is interesting in relation to our time and target group from the present day must be described. Anyway it will be great to hear some more comments on this, since it is a problem, which lies right in the heart of museology.
Hi Mette - your comment raises, I think, an important point. Our awareness of the subjective nature of value systems, makes us indecisive and anxious about these kinds of issues - don't you think? It must have been much easier (and quicker) when people just deferred to the authority of so-called experts to decide what was important and what was significant! (Not that I'm saying that's a good thing, of course.)
Mary said…
Whenever this question comes up I turn to Stuart Hall’s 1999 article for Third Text, “Whose heritage?”

Heritage is taken by Hall to refer to the complex of institutions, organisations and practices dedicated to the preservation and presentation of culture and the arts, a definition that neatly side-steps the issues by focussing on form not content. But in fact this is to step up a discussion about the nature of that content, or rather, the power dynamics evident in its selection. Rather like Hall I think I am more interested in the second-order question, not “is this heritage?” but “whose heritage?” – who has the power to define and as Mette says, who’s it for? As Hall says:

"The Heritage inevitably reflects the governing assumptions of its time and context. It is always inflected by the power and authority of those who have colonised the past, whose versions of history matter. These assumptions and co-ordinates of power are inhabited as natural – given, timeless, true and inevitable. But it takes only the passage of time, the shift of circumstances, or the reversals of history, to reveal those assumptions as time- and context-bound, historically specific, and thus open to contestation, re-negotiation, and revision."

[rather like your leggings Amy!]. What this means for curatorial practice is of course not immediately apparent. I would suggest, timidly, that it comes down to always questioning assumptions about value, and how it is assigned and by whom. That doesn’t mean that items that have traditionally been valued by a dominant group should no longer be collected and displayed, but rather that curators, when conceiving exhibitions, should try also to listen for the silences, the voices they can’t hear, question their absences and consider whether there are ways to make the past speak differently to different people. I think that’s the best I can do – but it’s still a bit vague…
Ceri said…
Interesting responses from everyone, great to read :)

I have thought of another way to define heritage based on Amy's consideration of intangible heritage. Tangible heritage is perhaps that which we are supposed to value as told to us by governments and public bodies such as English heritage but intangible heritage is more of the people and personal such as family history, language, oral culture. I see this as dynamic and changing, fluid unlike tangible heritage which is fixed and protected. Intangible heritage cannot be 'fixed' because once it is 'captured' it loses its dynamism and becomes 'official.' Of course what is official heritage does change eventually because it needs to absorb the 'intangible' to keep itself relevant. But at a certain time it may be fixed for political and other reasons. National history is one of these 'fixed' heritages that must tell a particular story in a particular way in order to be valid.
Anna said…
Just thought I'd share this with you...

In one of the breakout sessions that happened as part of the colloquium the chair of the session handed round a copy of a short chapter by the well known author Margaret Atwood called 'Heritage House' – it’s in a collection of essays called 'The Tent'. I really recommend reading it; I thought it was a really interesting look at how someone outside of heritage/museums might view the 'stuff' that is labelled heritage.

I am really interested in the so called 'intrinsic value' of heritage. Is Heritage, in all of its many guises, really good for us? and if so how?
Something that has just occurred to me, leading on from my polemic on the merging of the museum service in Ipswich with that of Colchester (sorry - was a bit hyped up on caffeine when I wrote all that!), is - not so much the instrinsic value of heritage, but -the intrinsic power of heritage, for good or bad. The way, for example, 'Anglo-Saxon' is transmuted by right-wing agendas to come to stand for British or English identity, when the concept of the 'native Briton' is more a hangover from the Victorian era than any reflection of reality. And how do explain the power of heritage, or particular landscapes or objects or buildings to instil particular emotions of belonging or ownership.

So, I've explained elsewhere my slightly rabid affection for my home county, but also that - in reality - I'm not really from there at all. So, if I don't really 'belong' there, and my ancestors never worked the land, why do I experience such overwhelming emotions of ownership and 'connectedness' when I stand (or, to be accurate stood, as the NT no longer allows that sort of thing!) on the mounds at Sutton Hoo and look out across the River Deben and the town of Woodbridge. Is the landscape, the site itself imbued with history, or is it just because we know what happened there, what was found there and are conscious of what it 'means', it's significance to the development of an understanding of 'Englishness' or Britishness? And why, when I visit the British Museum and look upon Redwald's helmet do I get goose-bumps?

And it's not just things from the place where I'm from or even 'belong'. I had a very similar experience when I was working at the PDF, and had occasion to move, within a display class, a small ceramic model of a cicada. Holding it in in the palm of my hand I experienced a sudden rush of all I can describe as 'history'. Suddenly I felt connected to all the others, overr the centuries, who must have held and cherished it in the same way. Again, did I feel that way because I knew something of its history? Because I was aware that the glaze had been worn away from centuries of handling, thus revealing the the human history of the object? There must be something deeply psychological going on...

Popular Posts