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What is heritage?
What is heritage?

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4 What does heritage do?

Heritage and control: the authorised heritage discourse

Anything that an authority (such as the state) designates as worthy of conservation subsequently enters the political arena. Alongside any thought or feeling we might have as individuals about an object, place or practice there will be a powerful and influential set of judgements from this authority which impacts on us. Smith’s argument is that there is a dominant western discourse, or set of ideas about heritage, which she refers to as an authorised (or authorising) heritage discourse, or AHD. We will be returning to the concept of the AHD throughout this book. The AHD is integrally bound up in the creation of lists that represent the canon of heritage. It is a set of ideas that works to normalise a range of assumptions about the nature and meaning of heritage and to privilege particular practices, especially those of heritage professionals and the state. Conversely, the AHD can also be seen to exclude a whole range of popular ideas and practices relating to heritage. Smith draws on case studies from the UK, Australia and the USA to illustrate her arguments. This part of the chapter looks in detail at the concept of the AHD as developed by Smith to illustrate how this particular set of ideas about heritage is made manifest: the ways in which heritage conservation operates at a local or regional level through the documents, protocols, laws and charters that govern the way heritage is assessed, nominated and protected.

Smith suggests that the official representation of heritage has a variety of characteristics that serve to exclude the general public from having a role in heritage and emphasise a view of heritage that can only be engaged with passively. She sees the official discourse of heritage as focused on aesthetically pleasing or monumental things, and therefore focused largely on material objects and places, rather than on practices or the intangible attachments between people and things. She suggests that the documents and charters that govern heritage designate particular professionals as experts and hence as the legitimate spokespeople for the past; they tend to promote the experiences and values of elite social classes, and the idea that heritage is ‘bounded’ and contained within objects and sites that are able to be delineated so that they can be managed.

We can see how these discourses of heritage are made concrete in heritage practice by looking at the International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites (1964) (known as the Venice Charter). The Venice Charter, adopted by the Second International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments, meeting in Venice in 1964, was a series of international principles to guide the preservation and restoration of ancient buildings. The philosophy behind the Venice Charter has had a major impact on all subsequent official definitions of heritage and the processes of cultural heritage management.

At the centre of the Venice Charter lie the concept of authenticity and an understanding of the importance of maintaining the historical and physical context of a site or building. The Charter states that monuments are to be conserved not only for their aesthetic values as works of art but also as historical evidence. It sets down the principles of preservation, which relate to the restoration of buildings with work from different periods. In its emphasis on aesthetic values and works of art, it makes implicit reference to the idea of heritage as monumental and grand, as well as to the idea of a canon of heritage.

The Charter begins with these words:

Imbued with a message from the past, the historic monuments of generations of people remain to the present day as living witnesses of their age-old traditions. People are becoming more and more conscious of the unity of human values and regard ancient monuments as a common heritage. The common responsibility to safeguard them for future generations is recognized. It is our duty to hand them on in the full richness of their authenticity.

(ICOMOS, [1964] 1996)

It is possible to see the lineage of a whole series of concepts about heritage in the Venice Charter. This quote reveals a very important aspect of the AHD involving the abstraction of meaning of objects, places and practices of heritage that come to be seen as representative of something aesthetic or historic in a rather generalised way. The AHD removes heritage objects, places and practices from their historical context and encourages people to view them as symbols – of the national character, of a particular period in history, or of a particular building type. In doing so, they are stripped of their particular meanings and given a series of newly created associations.

The Charter establishes the inherent values of heritage, and the relationship between the value of heritage and its fabric through its emphasis on authenticity. In Article 7 it goes on to reinforce this notion:

ARTICLE 7. A monument is inseparable from the history to which it bears witness and from the setting in which it occurs. The moving of all or part of a monument cannot be allowed except where the safeguarding of that monument demands it or where it is justified by national or international interest of paramount importance.

(ICOMOS, [1964] 1996)

Ideas about the inherent value of heritage are repeated in Article 15 through the focus on the value of heritage which can be revealed so that its meaning can be ‘read’:

every means must be taken to facilitate the understanding of the monument and to reveal it without ever distorting its meaning.

(ICOMOS, [1964] 1996)

The Charter is focused almost exclusively on particular kinds of material heritage, namely buildings and monuments, and on the technical aspects of architectural conservation. Once again, we see an emphasis on specialists as the experts in heritage conservation and management:

ARTICLE 2. The conservation and restoration of monuments must have recourse to all the sciences and techniques which can contribute to the study and safeguarding of the architectural heritage.

ARTICLE 9. The process of restoration is a highly specialized operation. Its aim is to preserve and reveal the aesthetic and historic value of the monument and is based on respect for original material and authentic documents. It must stop at the point where conjecture begins, and in this case moreover any extra work which is indispensable must be distinct from the architectural composition and must bear a contemporary stamp. The restoration in any case must be preceded and followed by an archaeological and historical study of the monument.

(ICOMOS, [1964] 1996)

The ideas about heritage that Smith describes using the concept of the AHD circulate not only at the national or global level but filter down to impact on the way in which heritage is managed, presented and understood as a concept at the local level. The next part of the chapter shows how these abstract concepts are made operational in heritage management in North America through the case study of the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site in Missouri.