Critical Heritage

Heritage is about the past-in-the-present.

Heritage is an industry, a global culture industry.

When you go on vacation it will not be just the cool breeze off the sea, the peace-bringing landscapes that you seek, but as much the local cuisine, the neighborhoods offering authentic encounter, and all the better if history echoes through the streets, if the villa on the hillside is as steeped in history as it looks. This is heritage – what remains of the past and is considered to be a collective cultural legacy. Our senses of identity and belonging seek out connections with the past, roots, cherished inheritance. The tourist industry thrives on heritage – it creates destinations worth visiting, and our encounters prompt us to reaffirm our sense of self.

It is not a coincidence that the heritage industry has grown so spectacularly since the 1980s as a globalist world of connected consumption confirms common identity. World heritage sites, places agreed by UNESCO to be of global cultural value, are a frequently encountered manifestation of heritage. Heritage simultaneously affirms the significance of the local, sources of authentic meaning in a world of sameness, of universal blue jeans and McDonald’s burgers. The anonymous global corporation insinuates itself into our lives and stands in contrast to an incessant search for friends and family, most ironically now through the global networks of social software and the online search for family tree.

In this world of significant pasts that afford points of reference, historical touchstones, senses of shared memory, mnemonic traces, heritage is a somewhat awkward term. It refers us to the importance of the past in the present, as the past makes us who we are, while also signaling that there is a problem of disconnection, that we are losing touch with the past, that the past is at risk and threatens to fall into ruin and disappear. To some the word may signify a conservative nostalgia for a past now lost. Heritage is a key component of nationalist sentiment – national identities frequently emphasize shared experiences of history. Some certainly see in mainstream heritage a distortion of what happened in the past in the service of present interests: a site of religious struggle may come to signify, through its fine architecture, the artistic achievements of a nation, forgetful of the suffering. To others the notion of heritage may signal too much of an orientation on the past, diverting attention from a more appropriate focus upon the present and future.

It is this ambiguity and awkwardness that requires us to be careful with the term – what is needed is a critical attitude – critical heritage.

Critical heritage acknowledges that this is a dynamic and charged field and we should focus on the processes that connect past and present. Heritage is all about the work done with what remains of the past. This is why it is appropriate to call this the heritage industry. For an example of such an attitude:




World Heritage – Hadrian’s Wall – built in the second century to mark the edge of the Roman empire

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