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What is heritage?
What is heritage?

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3.4 Heritage is not inherent

I want to return to Smith’s contention that ‘there is no such thing as heritage’. In arguing that there are only opinions and debates about heritage and that heritage is not something that is self-defining, Smith is challenging a model that sees heritage as an intrinsic value of an object, place or practice. An intrinsic value is one that is ‘built-in’ to an object, practice or place; it belongs to the basic and essential features that make something what it is. Under such a model of heritage, heritage objects, places and practices are attributed particular values by the professionals who are involved in assessing and managing heritage, such as architects, archaeologists, anthropologists, engineers and historians. With time, these values become reasonably fixed and unquestioned. This ‘knowledge’, as well as the weight of authority given to heritage professionals, gives the impression that the process of assessing heritage value is simply one of ‘uncovering’ the heritage values that already exist in an object, place or practice. We might think of such a model of heritage as taxonomic: it assumes that there is a pre-existing ordered hierarchy of heritage objects, places and practices in the world.

The idea that heritage is inherent and that its significance is intrinsic to it leads to a focus on the physical fabric of heritage. If value is inherent, it follows that ‘heritage’ must be contained within the physical fabric of a building or object, or in the material things associated with heritage practices.

The implication of this taxonomic viewpoint which holds that heritage is intrinsic to an object, place or practice is that a definitive list of heritage can be created. This idea is closely linked to the idea of an artistic or literary canon as previously discussed. Most practitioners would now recognise that heritage value is not intrinsic; value is something that is attributed to an object, place or practice by particular people at a particular time for particular reasons. Smith is challenging a process that attaches permanent legal conditions to certain places or things. She is arguing that all ‘objects of heritage’ need to be constantly re-evaluated and tested by social practices, needs and desires. Her argument is essentially that heritage is culturally ascribed, rather than intrinsic to things. While this might at first glance appear to be a rather academic point, it is a linchpin of critical heritage studies.

Throughout the second part of the twentieth century the increased recognition of cultural diversity and the contribution of multiculturalism to western societies created a conundrum. How could the old ideas about a fixed canon of heritage, which was established to represent nations with closed borders, come to stand for increasing numbers of diasporic communities of different ethnic origin who were forced, or who elected, to relocate to areas away from their settled territories and who now made such a contribution to the character and make-up of nation-states in western societies? (See, for example, Anderson, 2006.) This challenge, coupled with a recognition that heritage values could not be seen as intrinsic, led to the development of the concept of representativeness, and a shift away from the idea of a single canon of heritage.

Representativeness in heritage recognises that those in positions of power cannot always anticipate the places that the diverse range of members of society will find important. However, through conserving a representative sample of the diverse range of places, objects and practices that could reasonably by called ‘heritage’, we safeguard the protection of a sample of places and things which may be recognised as heritage now or in the future. A representative heritage place or object derives its values from the extent to which it can act as an exemplar of a class of place or type of object. However, it needs to be understood that this was not a total shift in ideals, and that both of these ways of understanding heritage are still taxonomic in nature and still involve the production of lists of heritage.

A more fundamental challenge, which will be taken up in subsequent chapters of this book, is that of non-western cultures which emphasise the intangible aspects of heritage. This has led to a model of managing and assessing values, rather than lists of heritage items. The recognition that it is impossible to conserve an example of every ‘thing’ generates a shift towards a thresholds-based heritage system, where things must be assessed against a series of criteria to qualify for heritage status. The influences of these changing systems of heritage will become clear as you work your way through the chapters of this book.

Before continuing to the next activity

[Searching for informationSAFARI] If you do not feel confident in using the internet to search for information, or you do not know what I mean by the term ‘search engine’, you might find it useful to run through a short exercise to familiarise you with using the internet to search for information. This exercise, Searching for information: Topic 5, World Wide Web [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , is provided by the OU Library as part of SAFARI (Skills in Accessing, Finding And Reviewing Information).

Once you have finished working through this exercise, return to Activity 4.

Activity 4

Timing: 15 minutes

Carry out an internet search on the term ‘heritage’ using any internet search engine, then write down the top ten to fifteen search results. Explore a couple of the ‘hits’ by clicking on them and looking at what they contain. On your list, note down whether the hit is a commercial site that is selling something or whether it is more concerned with research or conservation. Record some brief observations about the sort of definition of heritage that your chosen sites employ, or at least about what is implied when you look at them. Why do you think sites like these wish to be associated with ‘heritage’? What sorts of values are being used?


Depending on which search engine you used, and where you were searching, you will have come across different search results on the word ‘heritage’. My first three hits were for companies selling bathrooms, needlecraft and real estate. Another hit was for a company selling cars. What do you think this says about heritage? It is obviously a quality that some people feel sells things, such as cars, houses or bathrooms. Evidence that it might be something more comes from exploring some of the internet sites themselves, particularly those that promote museums, historic houses or other ‘official’ heritage places. [English Heritage] Because I am searching in England, one of the top links that came up was for the home page of English Heritage, the government body with legislative responsibility for the protection and promotion of the historic environment in England.

An issue that became clear to me from quickly browsing some of the sites returned by my search was the way in which heritage is linked integrally with travel and tourism. Indeed, World Heritage is very much connected with travel. I know that last time I went on holiday, the first thing I did was search for World Heritage sites in the nearby area, because I am interested in heritage and the past. Although it could be argued that I do this because I have an academic interest, I know I am not alone. Many World Heritage sites are as often featured in tourist brochures as they are in the pages of archaeology journals. Heritage tourism and site visits are seen as an appropriate recreational activity for people in many countries of the world. Many people will first ‘visit’ such places using the internet or through the pages of a guide book before visiting them in person. They might subsequently return to a site using the internet after they have visited it in person. Tourists increasingly migrate back and forth between actual and imagined heritage landscapes, which are mediated through the internet, film and other media.

If you wrote down some observations regarding the values that people seem to associate with heritage, you may have been reminded of Laurajane Smith’s suggestion that many people see the values of heritage as intrinsic to an object, place or practice. To this way of thinking, ‘great’ heritage might be seen to be intrinsically ‘important’, and the values of heritage to people in society as obvious. Using the term ‘heritage’ to describe real estate, for example, might draw on the value that heritage is seen to possess of having ‘stood the test of time’, and of being inherently superior though having done so.