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What is heritage?
What is heritage?

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2.2 Governments, heritage registers and the ‘canon’

One aspect of understanding heritage is appreciating the enormous influence of governments in managing and selectively promoting as heritage certain aspects of the physical environment and particular intangible practices associated with culture. One way in which governments are involved in heritage is through the maintenance, funding and promotion of certain places as tourist destinations. We are also reminded here, for example, of the many ways in which governments and nations are involved in the preservation of language as a way of preserving heritage and culture. Language is promoted and controlled by governments through official language policies which determine the state language and which often specify certain controls on the use of languages other than the state language. For example, in France, the ‘Toubon’ Law (Law 94-665, which came into force in 1994 and is named for the minister of culture, Jacques Toubon who suggested and passed the law through the French parliament) specifies the use of the French language in all government publications, print advertisements, billboards, workplaces, newspapers, state-funded schools and commercial contracts. We might also think of the suggestion by French president Nicolas Sarkozy (president 2007–) in 2008 that the correct methods for preparing classic items of French cuisine might be considered for protection as part of the UNESCO World Heritage List. At the time of writing, the nomination is still in preparation for presentation to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

In addition to such policies which ensure the preservation of intangible aspects of cultural heritage, governments play a major role in the maintenance and promotion of lists or databases of heritage. Most countries have a ‘national’ heritage list of physical places and objects which are thought to embody the values, spirit and history of the nation. In addition, governments may have multi-layered systems of heritage which recognise a hierarchy of heritage places and objects of national, regional and local significance. These lists (and indeed, the World Heritage List discussed earlier) might be thought of as offshoots of the concept of ‘the canon’. The word ‘canon’ derives from the Greek word for a rule or measure, and the term came to mean the standard by which something could be assessed. The idea of a canon of works of art developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to describe a body of artistic works that represent the height of aesthetic and artistic merit – works of art judged by those who are qualified in matters of taste and aesthetics to be ‘great’ works of art. Similarly, a literary canon describes those writers and their works that are deemed to be ‘great literature’. The canon is a slippery concept, as it is not defined specifically, but through a process of positioning – the canon is represented by those works of art that are held in art galleries and museums and discussed in art books, and those works of literature that are cited in literary anthologies.

When we start to think of a list of heritage as a sort of canon it raises a number of questions. Who are the people who determine what is on the list and what is not? What values underlie the judgements that specify which places and objects should be represented? How do we assess which are the great heritage objects and places and which are not? How does creating such a list include and exclude different members of society? It is now widely recognised that the idea of a canon is linked closely with that of nation (Mitchell, 2005), and that canons might be understood to represent ideological tools that circulate the values on which particular visions of nationhood are established. Creation of a class of ‘things’ that are seen to be the greatest expressions of culture promotes, in turn, narratives about the set of values that are seen to be the most worthy in the preservation of a particular form of state society. The heritage list, like the literary or artistic canon, is controlled by putting the power to establish the canon into the hands of experts who are sanctioned by the state.

It is important to point out that heritage is a rather strange kind of canon. It is unlike the canon of modern art as it is usually understood, for example, since the criteria that constitute it are diverse rather than unified. Modern art is defined by current canons of taste and these create separate ‘canons’ for different ideologies, such as a feminist canon, or a social history of art canon. These can co-exist, but each maintains its own consistent identity. The heritage canon, if measured by the World Heritage List (or a national heritage list) finishes up as a single list, but one which is determined by a wide range of considerations.

It is also important to make the point that heritage is fundamentally an economic activity. This is easily overlooked in critical approaches that focus on the role of heritage in the production of state ideologies (Ashworth et al., 2007, p. 40). Much of what motivates the involvement of the state and other organisations in heritage is related to the economic potential of heritage and its connections with tourism. The relationship between heritage and tourism is examined later in this course, but it would be remiss to neglect a mention here of the economic imperative of heritage for governments.

Activity 3

Timing: 5 minutes

Now that you have finished reading the first few pages, which describe what heritage is, take another look at the notes you made in Activity 1. Are there any essential characteristics of heritage that you would add to your original list? I hope the reading has stimulated you to think about a number of ‘things’ that might be considered to be heritage that were not on your original list.


One aspect of heritage that you may not have noted down in your original list is the practices of heritage, which include intangible customs and traditions, such as language, oral tradition and memory. If you compare your responses to this activity with the OED definition of heritage that you read in the discussion for Activity 2, you will notice that even the best dictionary will only include a limited definition of a topic as complex and controversial as heritage. Throughout this course, you will come to appreciate that it is the very diversity of views around what constitutes heritage which is at the heart of heritage studies as an academic discipline. This diversity is often expressed in the different values that people attribute to heritage objects, places and practices.