Heritage, A Critical Approach, Chapter 2


  • In exploring these crises, I focus particularly on the relationship of various actors – practitioners, state officials, local stakeholders, academics – to the material aspects of heritage…
  • Argument… a major outcome of the debates about heritage that have been central to the rise of critical heritage studies as an academic discipline over the past three decades has been a process of ‘dematerialising’ heritage by introducing an ever-increasing emphasis on the intangible aspects of heritage and tradition as part of an exponential growth in the objects, places and practices that are considered to be defined as heritage. As a result, I also introduce a number of concepts that derive from a growing literature on new approaches to material culture in the social sciences, which are integral to a dialogical model of heritage that I explore later in the book. 

Some definitions of heritage

  • … in the first instance to point out that heritage is not a ‘thing’ or a historical or political movement, but references to a set of attitudes to, and relationships with, the past (Walsh 1992; Harvey 2001, 2008; Smith 2006). These relationships are characterised by a reverence and attachment to select objects, places and practices that are thought to connect with or exemplify the past in some way. 
  • Perhaps most importantly, heritage is formed in the present (Tunbridge and Ashworth 1996:20; Lowenthal 2004: 19-23; Graham and Howard 2008:1) and reflects inherited and current concerns about the past. 
  • … I… argue, such practices are thoroughly embedded in a set of physical relationships with objects, places and other people, and in this sense, to speak of intangible heritage as somehow separate from the ‘material’ world is inaccurate.
  • I’ve already introduced the phrase ‘objects, places and practices’ as a gloss to describe the range of different ways in which heritage might be recognised in contemporary societies. So it is important to realise that heritage is not one thing, but can take many different forms.
  • Throughout this book, I use the term official heritage to refer to a set of professional practices that are authorised by the state and motivated by some form of legislation or written charter. This represents what most of us would recognise as a contemporary ‘operational’ definition of heritage as the series of mechanisms by which objects, buildings and landscapes are set apart from the ‘everyday’ and  conserved for their aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or recreational values.
  • Stonehenge… in the same ways in which contemporary neo-pagans make and remake the meaning and significance of this object from the past in the present, its archaeological significance also represents a form of ascribed value assigned to it by generations of practitioners who have remade the meaning of stonehenge to address contemporary archaeological debates. So we can see that objects, places and practices may sometimes have both official and unofficial heritage status, and that status has nothing to do with the particular qualities of the ‘thing’ itself, but are defined by values ascribed by those who hold positions of expertise and authority and whose viewpoints are recognised and acted upon by the state (Smith 2003, 2006). 
  • In other cases, unofficial heritage could be less conventionally represented by a series of values and practices that exist at a local or community level, but are not included within the state’s perception of its patrimony or national story. Examples include local festivals that are not recognised as of interest to the state, or the heritage of migrant groups of the working classes.
  • Traditions and quotidian aspects of culture are very rarely conceived of as ‘heritage’ in the absence of uncertainty, risk, a perception of threat, or the need to compete for attention with other interests that are perceived to be detrimental to them.
  • One of the important distinctions that existed in heritage practice in the West prior to around 1980 was that official forms of heritage management tended to recognise only the remarkable— the greatest, oldest, biggest and best. In this way, a canonical model of heritage was produced that was distinguished markedly from the everyday. The object of such forms of heritage was to draw a clear distinction from the past, in that the buildings and objects that were being preserved were seen as separate from (and, perhaps most importantly, more valuable than) those from the quotidian present. In subsequent chapters I suggest that it was only when official heritage attempted to broaden its remit to deal with not only remarkable objects, buildings and landscapes, but also traditional social practices and their association with more quotidian places, that it found itself in crisis, and conflict arose between models of heritage that emphasised the remarkable and those that emphasised the everyday.
  • I characterise such models as ‘continuous’, in the sense in which they emphasise the connection between the past and the quotidian present. The approaches to heritage that emerged from this crisis saw official heritage switch from canonical to more representative approaches, and encompass aspects of both ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture. Part of this new approach was also driven by emerging neoliberal economic approaches in the West, and by the ways in which heritage was forced to market itself to broader audiences as it was incorporated into an emerging experience economy.
  • [Categories within official and unofficial heritage fluctuates and are represented by different people and groups]
  • I want to suggest that a vast majority of the arguments relating to heritage— in an academic sense, at the level of public policy, and in relation to individual campaigns and protests— can be reduced to a series of issues relating to the recognition (or lack of recognition) of unofficial heritage, or in other words, arguments about the definition of ‘heritage’ itself.
  • This raises another important point, which is that the categories of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ heritage are not fixed, and ideas about what constitutes heritage in one ‘arena’ significantly influence those in another.
  • In part, the expansion of the categories of what is considered to constitute heritage has occurred as a direct result of ideas about what constitutes heritage in the ‘unofficial’ realm becoming officially recognised.
  • On the other hand, ideas about what heritage is and does that circulate within ‘official’ heritage can also significantly influence what people believe constitutes their own ‘unofficial’ heritage, whether it is recognised by the state or not. So these categories are locked in a dialectical or recursive process in which each influences the definition of the other.
  • [talking about heritage and identity]
  • David Lowenthal notes:
    • Heritage in Britain is said to reflect nostalgia for imperial self-esteem, in America to requite angst for lost community, in France to redress wartime disgrace, in Australia to surplant the curse of European recency with indigenous antiquity. But no explanation specific to one people can account for a cause so contagious. What is involved is a cluster of trends whose premises, promises and problems are truly global. (Lowenthal 2004: 23)
  • This volume seeks to take up the challenge laid down by Lowenthal to consider heritage in a critical and comparative fashion as a global phenomenon, while recognising the need to consider not only the similarities, but also the differences in how heritage is defined, managed, understood and used in different countries.
  • Lowenthal, D.
    • (1985) The Past is a Foreign Country, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • ( 1998) The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • ( 2004) ‘The Heritage Crusade and its Contradictions’, in M. Page and R. Mason (eds) Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 19– 44.
  • As Page and Mason note, the absence of critical accounts of the history of the preservation movement in the USA has led to the development of a series of unquestioned foundation myths and an absence of groundwork for critical analysis of the field.
    • [is this also true for China?]
  • Randall Mason (2009) and contributors to Giving Preservation a History (Page and Mason 2004)
  • In the UK, it is Octavia Hill, who was responsible for helping to establish the National Trust in the 1890s. Both ‘founding mothers’ (the gender politics here are clearly interesting and worthy of consideration in their own right) feature prominently in the historiography of the heritage movements in their respective countries.

Heritage and its relationship to Modernity

  • I want to suggest that are a number of characteristics of the way in which heritage is defined, understood and managed today, which derive from a way of perceiving the world that is a product of the experience of modernity.
  • … conceptualising and experiencing the world that is peculiar to modern societies…
  • Most commentators place the origins of the philosophies that underlie Western approaches to heritage management in the context of late Enlightenment thought and the rise of nation-states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
  • … heritage is held to be a distinctively modern notion…
  • By using this term ‘modern’, I mean not only that it developed relatively recently, but that it emerged within the context of a series of distinctive philosophies and social and political movements that we would recognise as belonging to a modern sensibility, and that have helped define (and produce) the modern period.
  • Sociologist Anthony Giddens defines modernity in these terms:
    • At its simplest, modernity is a shorthand term for modern society, or industrial civilization. Portrayed in more detail, it is associated with (1) a certain set of attitudes towards the world, the idea of the world as open to transformation, by human intervention; (2) a complex of economic institutions, especially industrial production and a market economy; (3) a certain range of political institutions, including the nation-state and mass democracy. Largely as a result of these characteristics, modernity is vastly more dynamic than any previous type of social order. It is a society – more technically, a complex of institutions – which, unlike any preceding culture, lives in the future, rather than the past. (Giddens and Pierson 1998: 94)
  • ‘The moderns have a peculiar propensity for understanding time that passes as if it were really abolishing the past behind it … since everything that passes is eliminated forever, the moderns … sense time as an irreversible arrow, as capitalisation, as progress.’ (Latour 1993: 68– 9, my emphasis)
  • This is what Jean-François Lyotard ([ 1979] 1984) means when he refers to modernity as a cultural condition characterised by constant change and the pursuit of progress. It is the question of what this ‘progress’ constitutes that goes to the heart of debates around heritage.
  • Very broadly speaking, Marxist traditions emphasise progress as a process of human emancipation, while liberal and free market traditions emphasise progress as the continuous expansion of capital. Both of these traditions take an ambiguous position on the retention of ‘old things’ and see the past as something to be managed carefully. This emphasis on progress, historical change and a break with tradition in modernity throws up unacknowledged tensions in terms of our relationship with time and its passage, tensions that are at the heart of contemporary understandings of the term ‘heritage’.

Heritage and the Time of Modernity

  • If one of the most distinctive aspects of modernity is its emphasis on linear progress and the distinct break it perceives between past and present, it follows that it must ‘manage’ its relationship with the past carefully. There is now a fairly well established argument, perhaps most strongly articulated by Kevin Walsh (1992), which suggests that it is the very way in which modernity contrasts itself in relation to its past that makes heritage such an important factor in determining how modern societies conceptualise themselves (see also Jameson 1991; Brett 1996; Harvey 2001).
  • As Osborne (1995: 13– 14) notes, the ‘time’ of modernity is not straightforward, as it involves a complex doubling in which it defines itself simultaneously as both ‘contemporary’ and ‘new’. In doing so, it constantly creates the present as ‘contemporary past’ whilst it anticipates the future as embodied within its present. In other words, modernity creates for itself a past that is perceived to be both immanent (contained within) and imminent (impending) in the present (Harrison 2011). This simultaneity of the past in the present is part of the way in which the experience of modernity is emphasised as one of rapid progress and technological and social change (Berman 1983; Virilio 1986; Tomlinson 2007). These processes can be said to have accelerated in the period since the second half of the twentieth century, in what I refer to as the period of ‘late-modernity’ (see Chapter 4).
  • One important outcome of this rather peculiar relationship with time is that, in its obsessive attempts to transcend the present, modernity becomes fixated on the past in several distinctive ways.
  • In the first instance, it is haunted by the idea of decline or decay. If progress is inevitable, so is obsolescence. This means that all things are potentially threatened with decline and decay, and those things that persist from the past are necessarily held to be at risk of disappearance. Secondly, in attempting to define itself in opposition to tradition and the past, modernity becomes concerned with defining and categorising it. While, as I discuss below, categorisation is itself an important aspect of the experience of modernity, modernity’s oppositional relationship with the past and with tradition makes the task of defining it doubly urgent. It is possible to argue that these two factors, the sense of the inevitability of the passage of time and the need to define and categorise the past in particular ways, work together to generate a nostalgia for ‘old things’, and for tradition, as the refuge from those aspects of modernisation that are felt to be most alienating and disruptive (Boym 2001; Wilson 2005). This, in turn, reinforces the sense of risk and threat that becomes associated directly with the past and with the passage of time in modernity. Whether these ‘traditions’ are in fact relatively shallow or deep does not matter, so much as the desire to anchor the values of the present in relation to cultural forms that are believed to have existed in the past.
  • [do these justify the actions of the people right now? but are villagers staying in a different timeline? the past is their present.]
  • One of the ways in which modernity has managed the notion of time and progress is through the institution of the museum. Tony Bennett (1995, 2004) has discussed the ways in which the museum and its associated historical sciences (anthropology, archaeology, palaeontology) developed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as techniques for both the management and the exhibition of ‘progress’ using distinctive visual forms associated with evolutionary schema, while at the same time generating new ideas about what it means to be human associated with new forms of cultural governance. Central to these historical sciences were a series of Enlightenment dualisms that separated past and present, body and mind, and nature and culture. But while the museum helped in ordering modernity by re-enforcing these dualisms and putting the past ‘in its place’, it also simultaneously generated new forms of value for the remnants of the past in emphasising the distance between past and present. If the past is remote, it must also necessarily be rare and valuable [why is that true?]. And if heritage is that which remains from the constant march of progress, it is also threatened by the very conditions that produce it. Once again, the ambiguity of modernity’s relationship with the past produces what appear to be opposing sentiments in the desire to be unshackled from the past, whilst simultaneously fetishising and conserving fragments of it. This ambiguity is expressed and partially reconciled through the modern concept of ‘risk’.

Modernity, heritage and risk

  • I have already mentioned that heritage is now generally defined against a background of (actual or metaphorical) protest over the potential loss, cessation or erasure of something that is perceived to be of value, within a broader discourse of conservation or preservation. This is because heritage has often been defined in the context of some sort of threat to objects, places or practices that are perceived to hold a form of collective value (Lowenthal 1985; Dicks 2000; Smith 2006; Davison [2000] 2008), and in opposition to other things that are perceived to be less important or significant.
  • The idea of risk could have been custom-made. Its universalizing terminology, its abstractness, its power of condensation, its scientificity, its connection with objective analysis, make it perfect. Above all, its forensic uses fit the tool of the task of building a culture that supports a modern industrial society.’ (Douglas 1992: 15; cited in Lupton 1999: 48)
  • These ideas were central to Ulrich Beck’s development of the idea of a modern ‘risk society’ (1992; see also Giddens 1990, 1991), in which danger is perceived as an inherent quality of the experience of modernity and the result of its preoccupation with the future. Beck defines risk as ‘a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernisation itself. Risks … are consequences which relate to the threatening force of modernisation and to its globalisation of doubt’. (1992:21)
  • Anthony Giddens suggests that one way in which modern societies manage risk and uncertainty is through placing increased trust in ‘experts’ and abstract ‘expert systems’ over local forms of knowledge (1991: 29– 32). An important insight into risk and its relationship with heritage and the conditions of modernity comes from Michel Foucault’s work on governmentality. Foucault wrote of governmentality as a broad strategy that has dominated Western societies since the eighteenth century, concerned with the management of individuals and populations in relation to a wide range of variables that are used in the production of the individual or collective subject (Foucault 2007, 2011). In doing so, particularly in his later works, Foucault identified a field of power relations which he referred to as bio-technical-political, a field that exists in both the discursive and non-discursive realm, which is produced and actively managed using a broad ensemble of technologies, techniques and practices. Paul Rabinow suggests the bio-technical-political field might be better rendered in English as a concern with ‘welfare’ (1989: 8). Welfare is directly related to risk. As Lupton notes, risk functions in Foucault’s conception of modern societies as ‘a governmental strategy of regulatory power by which populations and individuals are monitored and managed’ (1999: 87). Risk is calculated and defined by a range of ‘experts’ who produce statistics and data that make risk calculable and hence manageable. Integral to this process of managing risk, which we might think of using the terms ‘welfare’ or ‘care’, is the process of identifying and classifying it. I explore the links between the increasing bureaucratisation and professionalisation of heritage as modern strategies for the care and management of heritage ‘risk’ in Chapters 3 and 4.

Modernity, classification and ordering

  • If classification is a method for ordering, and hence identifying, risk or vulnerability, and the perception of risk is integral to the conditions of modernity itself, it follows that classification can be understood as central to the project of modernity. And if it is modernity’s relationship with the past that defines it, then it follows that time must be ordered and organised. As we have already seen, Berman (1983) characterised the experience of modernity as one that is inherently disorderly, and in response to this experience of disorder and alongside the increased emphasis on science and reason, the historical sciences began to organise the past into linear sequences, drawing on an evolutionary schema (Bennett 1995). The process of classification, ordering and cataloguing is an integral part of what it means to be modern. As Bowker (2005) notes (see also Bowker and Star 2000), classificatory systems are not only structures for the organisation of information, but they are, perhaps equally importantly, ‘memory practices’, that is, structures for the production and maintenance of knowledge systems that shape the way in which we perceive the past and present.
  • In Organizing Modernity (1994), John Law (1994: 110– 11) lists nine general attributes of modern modes of ordering that might help structure our investigations, which I summarise briefly.
    • Materials: modes of ordering might characterise and hence generate the qualities of things (including ‘agents, devices, texts, social relations and architectures’) and the patterning of relationships between them.
    • Size: modes of ordering might determine the relative relationships of size in relation to standard or normative measures.
    • Dualisms: modes of ordering might introduce the definition of dualistic differences that work against one another (the distinction between body and mind, for example, or the distinction between nature and culture).
    • Agency: modes of ordering might generate asymmetrical models of power relationships that empower and disempower particular entities in relation to one another.
    • Representation: modes of ordering might generate characteristic modes of representation, that is, forms of speaking and activity that stand in for those disempowered as a result of the process discussed above.
    • Distribution: modes of ordering might produce standard expectations of distributions.
    • Problems: patterns in distribution that are not normative will be perceived to be problematic and require a ‘solution’.
    • Boundary relations: modes of ordering will embody ways of dealing with other modes of ordering when they cut across one another, that is, they will establish boundaries and rules for the maintenance of those boundaries.