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What is heritage?
What is heritage?

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3.1 The heritage ‘industry’

In the late 1980s English academic Robert Hewison coined the phrase ‘heritage industry’ to describe what he considered to be the sanitisation and commercialisation of the version of the past produced as heritage in the UK. He suggested that heritage was a structure largely imposed from above to capture a middle-class nostalgia for the past as a golden age in the context of a climate of decline.

Hewison believed that the rise of heritage as a form of popular entertainment distracted its patrons from developing an interest in contemporary art and critical culture, providing them instead with a view of culture that was finished and complete (and firmly in the past). He pointed to the widespread perception of cultural and economic decline that became a feature of Britain’s perception of itself as a nation in the decades following the Second World War:

In the face of apparent decline and disintegration, it is not surprising that the past seems a better place. Yet it is irrecoverable, for we are condemned to live perpetually in the present. What matters is not the past, but our relationship with it. As individuals, our security and identity depend largely on the knowledge we have of our personal and family history; the language and customs which govern our social lives rely for their meaning on a continuity between past and present. Yet at times the pace of change, and its consequences, are so radical that not only is change perceived as decline, but there is the threat of rupture with our past lives.

(Hewison, 1987, pp. 43–5)

The context in which Hewison was writing was important in shaping his criticism of heritage as a phenomenon. His book The Heritage Industry is as much a reflection on the changes that occur within a society as a result of deindustrialisation, globalisation and transnationalism (in particular, the impact of rapid and widespread internal migration and immigration on the sense of ‘rootedness’ that people could experience in particular places in the UK in the 1980s, and the nostalgia that he saw as a response to this sense of uprootedness) as it is a criticism of heritage itself. He noted that the postwar period in the UK coincided with a period of growth in the establishment of museums and in a widespread sense of nostalgia, not for the past as it was experienced but for a sanitised version of the past that was re-imagined through the heritage industry as a Utopia, in opposition to the perceived problems of the present:

The impulse to preserve the past is part of the impulse to preserve the self. Without knowing where we have been, it is difficult to know where we are going. The past is the foundation of individual and collective identity, objects from the past are the source of significance as cultural symbols. Continuity between past and present creates a sense of sequence out of aleatory chaos and, since change is inevitable, a stable system of ordered meanings enables us to cope with both innovation and decay. The nostalgic impulse is an important agency in adjustment to crisis, it is a social emollient and reinforces national identity when confidence is weakened or threatened.

(Hewison, 1987, p. 47)

The academic Patrick Wright had published a book some two years earlier than The Heritage Industry titled On Living in an Old Country (1985). Like Hewison, Wright was concerned with the increasing ‘museumification’ of the UK, and the ways in which heritage might act as a distraction from engaging with the issues of the present. Wright argued that various pieces of heritage legislation that were put forward by the Conservative government could be read as the revival of the patriotism of the Second World War, and connected this Conservative patriotism to the events of the Falklands conflict. Like Hewison, he was also critical of the ‘timelessness’ of the presentation of the past formed as part of the interpretation of heritage sites:

National heritage involves the extraction of history – of the idea of historical significance and potential – from a denigrated everyday life and its restaging or display in certain sanctioned sites, events, images and conceptions. In this process history is redefined as ‘the historical’, and it becomes the object of a similarly transformed and generalised public attention ... Abstracted and redeployed, history seems to be purged of political tension; it becomes a unifying spectacle, the settling of all disputes. Like the guided tour as it proceeds from site to sanctioned site, the national past occurs in a dimension of its own – a dimension in which we appear to remember only in order to forget.

(Wright, 1985, p. 69)

These critiques of heritage in the UK centred on the ways in which heritage distracted people from engaging with their present and future. Both authors employed a ‘bread and circuses’ analogy in arguing that heritage, like the popular media, was a diversion which prevented people from engaging with the problems of the present:

Heritage ... has enclosed the late twentieth century in a bell jar into which no ideas can enter, and, just as crucially, from which none can escape. The answer is not to empty the museums and sell up the National Trust, but to develop a critical culture which engages in a dialogue between past and present. We must rid ourselves of the idea that the present has nothing to contribute to the achievements of the past, rather, we must accept its best elements, and improve on them ... The definition of those values must not be left to a minority who are able through their access to the otherwise exclusive institutions of culture to articulate the only acceptable meanings of past and present. It must be a collaborative process shared by an open community which accepts both conflict and change.

(Hewison, 1987, p. 144)

We need to pause to make a distinction between two criticisms of heritage which seem bound together here. There is a criticism of false consciousness of the past – the presentation of the past in an inaccurate manner – which can be corrected or remedied by ‘better’ use of history in heritage interpretation. There is also a criticism of nostalgia and anxiety that may be produced by an accurate understanding of past historical events (world wars, loss of empire and its influence etc.) but that direct attention away from the future. It needs to be kept in mind that nostalgia is separate from false consciousness. No matter how accurately history is represented by heritage, it can always be directed towards particular ends. The problem with official forms of heritage is not so much that it is ‘bogus history’ but that it is often directed towards establishing particular national narratives in reaction to the influence of globalisation on the one hand, and the local on the other. We can see the growth of heritage in the second part of the twentieth century as, at least in part, a reaction to the way in which globalisation, migration and transnationalism had begun to erode the power of the nation-state. In this guise, heritage is primarily about establishing a set of social, religious and political norms that the nation-state requires to control its citizens, through an emphasis on the connection between its contemporary imposition of various state controls and the nation’s past.