What is heritage?

Updated Tuesday 23rd June 2009

Heritage is constantly changing in the light of the present, explains Rodney Harrison.

Many people would be surprised to hear me say heritage has very little to do with the past, but is actually more about how we conceptualise the future. Objects of heritage are the things we pay attention to because they’re still meaningful to us, not always because they tell great stories about the past but because we use them to tell stories about ourselves. Practices of heritage are customs and habits which, although intangible, also inform who we are as groups, and help to create our shared social memory.

We use objects of heritage (artefacts, buildings, sites, landscapes) and practices of heritage (languages, music, community celebrations) to shape our ideas about who we are as nations, communities, and individuals. What we define as ‘heritage’ is constantly changing in the light of the present as we look to the past to imagine our future.

In heritage studies, we tend to think about two separate—and sometimes opposed—processes of heritage.

Official processes of heritage

Official processes of heritage involve the State, and describe those aspects of care which are sanctioned by the government, including documenting, listing and managing places as heritage.

For this reason, many people would see the focus of heritage studies as the accurate and authentic representation of heritage and its history. But, if we think about heritage as a process of nation-building in the present, heritage is not really about truth or authenticity at all. Instead it’s about deliverable political objectives—about reinforcing social cohesion through the construction of myths of origin, identity and moral example.

Unofficial processes of heritage

The other, unofficial, processes of heritage refer to the ways in which people use objects, places and practices which link them to the past within their communities to build a sense of identity and to connect with the places in which they live.

These unofficial practices may be practices which connect with official heritage places but are not sanctioned by the state. For example, imagine a regular community fair which takes place in the grounds of a listed country house. The event has nothing to do with the recognition of its architectural merit (for which it has been given a Grade II* listing) but it’s this activity which helps people to build a sense of local identity in their community.

In other circumstances, these unofficial practices of heritage refer to objects and places which are not recognised as part of the canon of heritage by those who have the power to determine what is, and what is not, part of the ‘list’.

For example, Stonehenge is an object of heritage, not because of its importance to archaeologists for evidence about prehistory, but because it is currently used as a compelling symbol that connects us with feelings about deep time, ideas about Britishness, alternative knowledge and lost communities.

Officially it is a World Heritage Site, because it fulfils the global criteria for being an outstanding example of past activity that experts want to keep for the future. Unofficially, it attracts millions of global visitors who want their own experience and find their own meanings at the site. It is this unofficial ‘cultural work’ that goes on around the idea of Stonehenge that makes it such a powerful object of heritage.

Heritage which excludes

Some people won’t be able to see themselves represented by the official heritage which is sanctioned by the state. This has the effect of excluding certain people from the officially authorised vision of nationhood, effectively saying that they’re not part of who ‘we’ are.

For example, how many people in today’s society would see themselves represented by Blenheim Palace? With its powerfully anti-French meanings and its history re-enforcing a system of class and privilege which many no longer see as relevant, how are people to connect themselves with this part of their education into what it means to be British? It’s a great day out for some, but do they come away from their visit feeling that they are a part of the history it represents?

It is this ability of heritage to include as well as exclude that makes it such a powerful political force in society, and which makes its study of such critical social importance in the world today.


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