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What is heritage?
What is heritage?

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3 ‘There is no such thing as heritage’

The first part of this course presented a range of definitions of heritage that derive from everyday and technical uses of the term. Here a series of approaches to heritage are introduced by way of a particular academic debate about heritage. Given the focus on preservation and conservation, heritage as a professional field has more often been about ‘doing’ than ‘thinking’; it has focused more on technical practices of conservation and processes of heritage management than on critical discussion of the nature of heritage and why we think particular objects, places and practices might be considered more worthy than others of conservation and protection. But more recently scholars have begun to question the value of heritage and its role in contemporary society. Archaeologist Laurajane Smith, who has written extensively in the field of critical heritage studies, writes ‘there is, really, no such thing as heritage’ (2006, p. 11). What could she mean by this statement? How can there be legislation to protect heritage if it does not, in some way, exist!

In making this bold statement, Smith is drawing on a much older debate about heritage that began in the UK during the 1980s. This debate has been very influential in forming the field of critical heritage studies as it exists today, not only in the UK, but throughout the parts of the world in which ‘western’ forms of heritage conservation operate, and in the increasingly large numbers of ‘non-western’ countries who are engaged in a global ‘business’ of heritage through the role of the World Heritage List in promoting places of national importance as tourist destinations. The next section outlines this debate and the ideas that have both fed into and developed from it, as an introduction to critical heritage studies as a field of academic research (this characterisation of the debate is strongly influenced by Boswell, 1999).