Heritage: Critical Approaches

by Rodney Harrison

[Everything in the world is changing. We need to be critical about our own obsession about preservation. Respond to what is happening in the world right now. Heritage also needs to respond because it is a relationship about past-present-future. Suggest for more agency in the individual through dialogue and connectivity and reconsidering the affective qualities of material.]

  • Fundamentally [the book] deals with the modern Western traditions of heritage that gave rise to the 1972 World Heritage Convention, and their application to non-Western contexts. It does not, for example, engage with the alternative histories of heritage conservation that developed in Asia, for example (see Bryne 2007; Daly and Winter 2011). 


  • The central aim of this book: provide a critical account of the emergence of ‘heritage studies’ as an interdisciplinary field of academic study, as part of a broader consideration of heritage as a social, economic and political phenomenon of late-modern societies, with a particular focus on various changes that have occurred as a result of the globalisation of heritage during the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
  • I argue that over this period there have been a number of fundamental ‘crises’ for heritage, the resolution of which has had (and continues to have) a significant impact of the ways in which heritage is defined, perceived and managed in contemporary global societies.
  • These changes relate in part to the dominance of notions of heritage that have been promulgated since the 1970s through the work of the World Heritage Committee (Di. Giovine 2009), but also relate to a series of widespread social and economic shifts in late-modern societies involving processes of globalisation, deindustrialisation, and the rise of the contemporary experience economy. 
  • … providing an overview of heritage studies, the book also attempts to provide a critical account of these new developments in heritage and to suggest new frameworks within which they might be explored.
  • … practices of heritage identification, conservation and management
  • In particular, I emphasise a series of interlinked concepts – materiality, connectivity and dialogue – which I suggest are central to understanding the role of heritage in contemporary societies and in reorienting heritage so that it might be more closely connected with other contemporary social, political, economic and environmental concerns.
  • … heritage is primarily not about the past, but instead about our relationship with the present and the future
  • Understanding our era’s obsession with preservation [assumption] will allow not only heritage researchers and practitioners, but also informed laypersons, to exercise greater agency [recommendation] in the decisions that governments, NGOs, communities and other individuals make about actively forming our past in the present.
  • It… suggest[s] a new ‘dialogical’ model in which heritage is seen as emerging from the relationship between people, objects, places and practices, and that does not distinguish between or prioritise what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘cultural’, but is instead concerned with the various ways in which humans and non-humans are linked by chains of connectivity and work together to keep the past alive in the present for the future. I will argue that this dialogical model of heritage has radical implications not only for the study of heritage, but also for breaking down the bureaucratic divide between laypersons and experts, suggesting new models for heritage decision-making processes in the future.

What is Heritage?

  • Broad and slippery… solid… and ethereal…
  • Positive term
  • … a concept that is central to heritage – categorisation and listing. ‘Heritage’, at least insofar as those agencies charged with managing it are concerned, cannot exist independently of a process of categorising, ordering, listing and subsequently conserving and/or archiving it.
  • Abundance of heritage
  • Heritage as a concept is constantly evolving, and the way in which the term is understood is always ambiguous and never certain. This provides one of the main incentives for taking a critical approach to heritage in contemporary society, so that we can begin to understand what role the concept plays in any given context in which it is invoked, and the unique cluster of knowledge/power effects that it brings to bear on any given situation. 
  • … the context in which heritage is deployed as a concept is crucial… heritage is often invoked in the context of debates and protests about things and practices that are considered to be threatened or at risk. That risk might simply be the implicit threat of time itself – forgetting, decaying, eroding or becoming work with age. More often, the threat is one of demolition or destruction – the flattening of a building, the bulldozing of a tree, the destruction of a tract of landscape by mining, perhaps, or even more seriously, the extinction of a plant or animal species, or the genocide of a group of people during times of war. The element of potential or real threat to heritage – of destruction, loss or decay – links heritage historically and politically with the conservation movement. Even where a building or object is under no immediate threat of destruction, its listing on a heritage register is an action that assumes a potential threat at some time in the future, from which it is bring protected by legislation or listing.
  • … heritage is generally invoked as a positive quality, that it assumes some relationship with the past, and that it relates to ways of categorising and classifying ‘things’ and traditions in the world. Moreover, it often implies a sene of threat, or at least some vulnerability, and various other qualities that set it apart from the everyday. Most importantly, heritage today is distinctive as a concept in the broad number of different categories of things it might be found to describe. The ‘industry’ that has grown up around the identification, preservation, management and exhibition of these many and varied forms of heritage has assumed an important place within the operation of contemporary global societies.

What is heritage studies?

  • Heritage has often been perceive to compromised by its contingent relationship to other areas, tourism and the leisure industries in particular.
  • Geographers have approached heritage through the lens of urban studies and planning, and its relationship to processes such as regeneration and gentrification. 
  • … I argue that the form of our contemporary global responses to heritage … are ultimately driven by a common series of concerns that relate to the experience of globalisation and the conditions of late-modernity. Further, since the 1970s, the work of international NGOs, in particular the UNESCO World Heritage Committee and its advisory bodies, has promulgated a particular approach and a series of underlying values towards heritage, which are now part of a common, universal language of heritage management.
  • For this reason… heritage is increasingly officially defined and governed by a common set of philosophies that have their origins in a particular, modern Euro-American way of thinking about the relationship between the past and present, a desire to order and and categorise and a late-modern obsession with vulnerability, uncertainty and risk.
  • [therefore important to study globalisation and heritage]
  • While one of the main academic criticisms of heritage has focused on the dominance of tangible objects and buildings in heritage at the expense of intangible cultural values, I argue that official practices of heritage and academic heritage studies have actually increasingly distanced themselves from material ‘things’ and have become dominated by the discourse of heritage. I refer to this as heritage studies’ ‘discursive turn’. While the discursive turn has been important in drawing attention to the knowledge/power effects of heritage and its processes of identification, exhibition and management, it has also tended to deprivilege the significant affective qualities of material things and the influences the material traces of the past have on people in the contemporary world. And while certain critiques draw on alternative models of heritage from Indigenous and non-Western contexts, I argue that they fail to appreciate the significant ways in which these same traditions conceptualise heritage as an emergent property of the dialogical relationship between human beings and a range of other human and non-human actors and their environments. 
  • In the light of this, I think it is important to reconsider the affective qualities and the material aspects of heritage. Developing a dialogical model of heritage, which implies an ontology of connectivity and more democratic processes of heritage decision-making, I argue that this alternative way of studying and understanding heritage has important implications for the ways in which we might deal with the overwhelming presence of the past in contemporary society, and allows us to connect heritage with broader issues such as sustainability and environmental change. This dialogical model implies an ethical stance in relation to others, and a belief in the importance of acknowledging and respecting alternative perspectives and worldviews as a condition of dialogue, and provides a way to connect heritage with other pressing social, economic, political and environmental issues of our time.

Structure of the Book

  • Four broad sections
  • Chapter 2: relationship of heritage to modernity as a philosophical and political concept, arguing that heritage is informed by the particular relationships between modernity and time, a sense of uncertainty, vulnerability or ‘risk’, and processes of ordering, classifying and categorising (or ‘listing’) that were developed in the modern historical sciences.
  • Further it introduces a series of ways of conceptualising and studying the relationships between people and ‘things’, drawing on actor-network theory, assemblage theory and symmetrical archaeology, which help frame the discussions of the diversification of heritage in the late 20th and early 21st centuries in Chapters 6-10. These chapters provide the foundation for the themes of materiality, connectivity and dialogue that I develop in subsequent sections of the book.
  • Chapters 3 & 4 provide a brief historical account of the rise of heritage in Western societies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and its global spread during the second part of the 20th century…
  • Chapter 5 provides an outline of the rise of the critical interdisciplinary field of academic heritage studies, and an overview of the major areas of debate… relationship between heritage and nationalism… between heritage and economic decline in the UK… politics of representation… ‘new museology’… ownership of cultural property… heritage as a ‘discourse’ in relation to Foucauldian models of governmentality and critical discourse analysis…
  • Chapter 6-9: ‘crises’
  • Chapter 6: cultural landscapes and intangible heritage… and their impact
  • Chapter 7: globalisation and transnationalism… multicultural societies… universal rights to cultural diversity as expressed by UNESCO
  • Chapter 8: memorialisation of the past in relation to political and social change… changes of political regime… iconoclasm and its relatioship with collective forgetting… ‘absent heritage’ and virtual heritage… ‘too much’ heritage… ‘need’ for societies to forget… deaccessioning heritage.
  • Chapter 9: indigenous and non-western models of heritage… ‘universal’ World Heritage… proposes an alternative dialogical model of heritage based on the connectivity of people, landscape and things.
  • Chapter 10: conclusion… future of heritage… book’s central themes of abundance, uncertainty, materiality, connectivity and dialogue…