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What is heritage?
What is heritage?

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1 Introducing heritage

This course introduces the concept of heritage and examines its various uses in contemporary society. It then provides a background to the development of critical heritage studies as an area of academic interest, and in particular the way in which heritage studies has developed in response to various critiques of contemporary politics and culture in the context of deindustrialisation, globalisation and transnationalism. Drawing on a case study in the official documentation surrounding the Harry S. Truman Historic Site in Missouri, USA, it describes the concept of authorised heritage discourses (AHD) in so far as they are seen to operate in official, state-sanctioned heritage initiatives. Where the other chapters in the book contain substantial case studies as part of the discussion of the different aspects of the politics of heritage, this course focuses instead on key concepts, definitions and ideas central to understanding what heritage is, and on heritage studies as a field of inquiry. The chapter suggests that critical heritage studies should be concerned with these officially sanctioned heritage discourses and the relationships of power they facilitate on the one hand, and the ways in which heritage operates at the local level in community and identity building on the other.

We will be introducing you to the meaning of ‘heritage’ in global societies. But first, I would like you to think about what the word heritage means to you.

Activity 1

Timing: 5 minutes

Using a notebook or a tablet, write down some key words that spring to mind when you think of the term ‘heritage’. Now try to write down some of the sorts of things that you think could be described as heritage. Save this list so that you can refer to it later on.


Summing up what you think heritage is may not have been as easy as you thought it might be. Perhaps you wrote down something about ‘the past’ and ‘old buildings’, or something about places, objects or buildings that have some form of protection. You may have written down the word ‘history’. It is impossible to capture the diverse range of meanings of heritage in such a short space of time.

Activity 2

Timing: 5 minutes

Now let’s look at the ways in which a dictionary defines heritage.

Using a dictionary, physical or online, search for the word ‘heritage’ and make a note of the definition provided.


One of the meanings of ‘heritage’ offered by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is ‘characterized by or pertaining to the preservation or exploitation of local and national features of historical, cultural, or scenic interest, esp. as tourist attractions’, but there are several other meanings of the word, including ‘inheritance’ and ‘lineage’.