Heritage Pasts and Heritage Presents

by David C. Harvey

  • In short, many contemporary studies of heritage issues have failed fully to explore the historical scope that the concept really implies, and have rather been too preoccupied with certain manifestations of heritage’s recent trajectory.
  • I wish to make space for a longer historical analysis of the development of heritage practices. Consequently, by providing a longer historical narrative of `heritageisation’ as a process, I am seeking to situate the myriad of multiplyconnected interdisciplinary research that makes up the terrain of heritage studies today.
  • history of heritage, not starting at an arbitrary date like 1882, but by producing a context-rich account of heritage as a process or a human condition rather than as a single movement or personal project.
  • Every society has had a relationship with its past, even those which have chosen to ignore it, and it is through understanding the meaning and nature of what people tell each other about their past; about what they forget, remember, memorialise and/or fake, that heritage studies can engage with academic debates beyond the confines of present-centred cultural, leisure or tourism studies.
  • processes of `heritageisation’ within a much longer temporal framework than is
    normally used.

The Presentness of Heritage: heritage definitions and the apparent demise of history

  • almost all commentators place the appearance of the heritage phenomenon in the latter half of the 20th century, with even the earliest origins often manifested only in the 19th century with the Ancient Monuments Act of 1882 and personified by such figures as William Morris.
    • McCrone et al. proclaim that `heritage is a thoroughly modern concept, . . . [it] belongs to the final quarter of the twentieth century’.
    • Lowenthal argues that it is only in our time that heritage has `become a self-conscious creed’, while
    • Graham et al. claim that it is only in the last few decades that the word has come to mean more than a legal bequest.11
    • Lowenthal, Heritage crusade, p. 1; Graham et al., Geography of heritage, p. 1.
  • The critical response of Robert Hewison14 to the recent developments of the so-called `heritage industry’ are well known, and the dating of this rise of `heritageisation’ to the later 20th century is a central part of his thesis. R. Hewison, The heritage industry: Britain in a climate of decline
  • Tunbridge & Ashworth, for instance, note that `the present selects an inheritance from an imagined past for current use and decides what should be passed on to an imagined future’ .24
  • Hewison used in his attack on the so-called `heritage industry’; heritage was somehow threatening history, destroying an authentic version of the past and replacing it by simulacra of that past. This extreme position was criticised by Samuel (Theatres of memory), among others, who sees the practices associated with the so-called `heritage industry’ as valid techniques for exploring one’s
    relationship with the past.
  • Since all heritage is produced completely in the present, our relationship with the past is understood in relation to our present temporal and spatial experience.27 This school of thought, which ultimately endeavours to relate notions of time± space compression to ideas that the experience of time itself has now ended, as we are now condemned to live through an endless series of presents, is well discussed in a critical paper by Dodgshon. R.A. Dodgshon,
    `Human geography at the end of time? Some thoughts on the notion of time± space compression’ , Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol. 17, No. 5, 1999, pp. 607± 620.
  • Some heritage scholars have sought to place this dislocation and rootlessness
    within wider developments of our post-modern society.28 What this has meant for the field of heritage studies is that a sort of `line of temporal closure’ has been drawn, which ties the appearance of heritage to the development of post-modernity. Heritage, as practised today, is portrayed as a product of the wider social, cultural, political and economic transitions that have occurred during the later 20th century. What this itself implies, however, is that, firstly, there is something called `correct’ historical narrative that heritage is busily destroying and, extending from this, that until very recently, all history, historical narrative and other relationships with the past were somehow more genuine and authentic than they have now become. This point requires some discussion of the relationship between history and heritage, and also some thought as to how we define the latter concept.

    • As well as appearing to retain a modernist, scientific version of historical narrative, the heritage baiters’ accounts also tend to imply that previous relationships with the past, whether factually correct or not, were somehow more authentic.
    • In this sense, the heritage industry is portrayed as a sort of parasite, exploiting the more genuine and `ageless’ memorial (and largely oral) relationships with the past that people had before the 19th century.
  • This idea is related to notions that distinguish between `modern’ and `traditional’ memory, which was best articulated by Nora and discussed
    by Johnson.34

    • P. Nora, `Between memory and history; les lieux de memoire’ , Representations, Vol. 26, 1989, pp. 10± 18; N. Johnson, `Memory and heritage’, in P. Cloke, P. Crang & M. Goodwin (eds) Introducing human geographies, London: Arnold, 1999, pp. 170± 178.
    • Nora draws a distinction between an elite, institutionalised memory preserved in the archives, and the memory of ordinary people, unrecorded, and ingrained in the unspoken traditions and habits of everyday life.35 Most importantly, however, rather than seeing this `traditional memory’ as something that has ended, and defeated by `false heritage’ , Nora sees it as having been transformed (partly through technological and archival development) and democratised. `In this light, rather than viewing heritage as a false, distorted history imposed on the masses, we can view heritage sites as forming one link in a chain of popular memory.’
    • [Give the possibility of choice]
  • We should not draw any lines of temporal closure, or view the entire heritage concept as a product of later 19th- and 20th-century cultural change without origin. Rather, we should supply heritage with a history of its own, not in terms of recounting the story of the development of a particular modernist strand of heritage from a 19th-century icon, but in terms of examining the evolution of the heritage process over the longer term.
  • subjective interpretation of selective material and issues. This situation is certainly not new, but rather has a long history that needs to be examined.
  • For instance, Lowenthal sees heritage as a practice that `clarifies pasts so as to infuse them with present purposes’, while Hewison has defined heritage as `that which a past generation has preserved and handed on to the present and which a significant group of population wishes to hand on to the future’ .37
  • The practice of engaging with these case studies through recourse to heritage concepts will help us to understand heritage as a process, or a verb, related to human action and agency, and as an instrument of cultural power in whatever period of time one chooses to examine.39
  • In order to investigate these historical case studies, the simple definition of heritage as `a contemporary product shaped from history’ has been used.40 This concise definition conveys that heritage is subjective and filtered with reference to the present, whenever that `present’ actually is. It is a value-laden concept, related to processes of commodification, but intrinsically reflective of a relationship with the past, however that `past’ is perceived and defined.
    • Tunbridge & Ashworth, Dissonant heritage, p. 20.

Heritage Practice in the Pre-modern Period

  • oft-cited relationship between ideas of heritage and those of national identity.
  • [Using medieval examples to show that the pitting of heritage industry vs. actual heritage is not a new Modern condition]
  • This heritage process, therefore, reflects the predilections of a powerful elite, and was used to justify wholesale landscape alteration, plantation and improvement.

Concluding Thoughts

  • The above examples have illustrated how concepts of heritage have always developed and changed according to the contemporary societal context of transforming power relationships and emerging nascent national (and other) identities. I would see this relationship very much as a hand-in-hand transformation, rather than one of straight cause and effect.
  • The paper also demonstrates how heritage processes can be explored within a very long temporal framework, and should not be described simply as a recent product of post-modern economic and social tendencies. Most important here is the notion that heritage is, first and foremost, a process.
  • one can argue that, just as historians have been criticised for a perceived `fetishisation’ of the written archive,82 heritage studies can sometimes come across as fetishising authentic and preserved physical relics and remains.83 To counter this, we should heed Brett’s comments about history being a verb; likewise, heritage is not given, it is made and so is, unavoidably, an ethical enterprise.84 (84. D. Brett, `The construction of heritage’ , in B. O’Connor & M. Cronin (eds) Tourism in Ireland: a
    critical analysis, Cork: Cork University Press, 1993, pp. 183± 202 (p. 186).)
  • This essay, therefore, challenges the popular convention of understanding heritage simply as a physical artefact or record, by advocating an approach that treats heritage as a cultural process. Following Bender’s comments on landscape, heritage is `never inert, people engage with it, re-work it, appropriate it and contest it. It is part of the way identities are created and disputed, whether as individual, group or nation state.’85 Perhaps even more so than the representation of landscape, heritage is a present-centred cultural practice and an instrument of cultural power. The heritage movement that traces its origins to William Morris and the SPAB of the later 19th century represents but one strand of heritage practice, reflecting the perceptions, politics and assumed natural identities of its practitioners. Taking a longer temporal perspective has revealed a complex evolution of heritage, mirroring processes of dialogue and resistance between interested parties. Developments that have occurred should be seen as gradual, tentative and discontinuous, intrinsically linked to changing notions of what heritage should be like, and inseparable from the ingrained ritual associated with practices of everyday life.
    • 85. B. Bender, `Introduction; landscapeÐ meaning and action’, in B. Bender (ed.) Landscape: politics and perspectives, Oxford: Berg, 1993, pp. 1± 18 (p. 3). See also Seymour, `Historical geographies of landscape’ , p. 214.
  • For instance, Lowenthal relates what he sees as a secularising tendency within heritage to a process of democratisation.86 On the face of it, the involvement of heritage with a mass audience as compared with the 19th century seems clear-cut. However, our longer term perspective reveals a large degree of popular involvement in Bonfire celebrations in the 17th century and in miracle plays
    and the like at a much earlier time.87 Overall, though, it does seem certain that a
    bigger range and number of people are becoming more involved in a much broader and deeper array of heritage phenomena than ever before. Drawing on the ideas of Dodgshon, this transformation in scale, scope and access to heritage can perhaps be related to a transformation in technology.88

    • 86. D. Lowenthal, `Stewardship, sanctimony and selfishnessÐ a heritage paradox’ , in J. Arnold, K. Davies & S. Ditchfield (eds) History and heritage, 1998, pp. 169± 179 (p. 173).
  • In this respect, heritage is not seen as a new phenomenon, nor even one particularly or exclusively associated with modernity. Rather, the transformations that are implied by modernity are simply mirrored by an increasing intensification, recycling, depth and scope of heritage activity. In many respects, therefore, the present tendency for nostalgia and finding solace in heritage is just the latest phase of a much longer trajectory.91
    • 91. Lowenthal, Heritage crusade, p. 5; McCrone et al., Scotland Ð the brand, p. 11.
  • In parallel with the underdevelopment of a longer temporal perspective on heritage is an underdeveloped sense of heritage history, or what might be termed the `heritage of heritage’ . Lowenthal drew attention to this when he noted that history itself is a heritage.92 In this respect, conceptions of modernity and even the longing for the future that Lowenthal speaks of are `contemporary products shaped by the past’ .93 Taking this view, one might therefore see the often-reported and eulogised 19th-century development of preservationism and architectural protectionism (along with the entire `scrape/anti-scrape’ debate) as simply an important moment within a much longer trajectory of heritage in Britain. Like all heritage, it is a selective portrayal contingent on present-day requirements, thereby reflecting a sense of nostalgia towards the heritage heroes of yesteryear.
    • 92. Ibid., p. xi. See also the implications of J. Arnold, `Nasty histories, medievalism and horror’ , in J. Arnold, K. Davies & S. Ditchfield (eds) History and heritage, 1998, pp. 39± 50.