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What is heritage?
What is heritage?

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6 Conclusion

This course has explored ideas about what constitutes heritage – from a canonical list of places and objects to community practices and social action. In the introduction to this course it was suggested that heritage studies as an academic discipline was concerned with the study of two processes and the relationship between them. The first of these processes concerns the ways in which ideas about official heritage, or AHD, are involved in the production of a ‘heritage industry’ which grants the power to control heritage and, by extension, its messages, to ‘experts’ and the state. Critics have disapproved of aspects of the heritage industry for producing sanitised and unrealistic reconstructions of the past, as well as for distracting people from the contemporary and creative aspects of culture that could transform it. The AHD model presents heritage as complete, untouchable and ‘in the past’, and embodied within tangible things such as buildings and artefacts. Such a model of heritage is based on the idea that the values of heritage are inherent and unchanging.

On the other hand, scholars have pointed to alternative aspects of heritage that involve the production of identity and community, that relate to official and unofficial practices of heritage, and that have the potential to transform society. The relationship between local action and global networks has been highlighted as important to this process. This model of heritage as social action could also be characterised as a ‘bottom-up’ approach, in opposition to the way in which heritage as an ‘industry’ operates from a ‘top-down’ position. Heritage as social action is more concerned with practices or with the intangible aspects of heritage than with objects of heritage or tangible heritage. It is involved in the production of both collective and individual memory and performs ‘social work’ which helps to build community and identity.

In this course the focus moves from what heritage ‘is’ to what it ‘does’. This is what distinguishes ‘critical’ heritage studies from heritage in practice. Critical heritage studies is concerned with thinking about the function of heritage within society and how it works, rather than how you do it (for example, by protecting a site).

Activity 6

Timing: 15 minutes

Turn again to the notes that you made in Activity 1, which reflected what you thought heritage was before you started to read the extracts provided. Now reflect on the ways in which your opinion about what heritage ‘is’ might have changed. As your definitions of what heritage ‘does’ in society expand, so will your definitions of ‘heritage’.

Briefly note down some of your own ideas about what you believe the function of heritage to be in contemporary human societies, and the ways in which it fulfils those functions (i.e., how it works).


Although your observations on the role of heritage and the ways in which heritage performs those roles will be different from mine as they will reflect your own life experiences, the chapter talks about the way in which the values that we hold as relating to heritage are often only articulated in the face of perceived threat. So one of the functions of heritage is to set aside particular objects, practices or places as important and worthy of preservation.

Another function of heritage discussed in the chapter is the role of heritage in establishing a particular set of ‘norms’ in the past, which nations use to form the values of their citizens in the present. We tend to think of this link between heritage and nationalism as a dangerous one – indeed, it can be – but we should also be aware that it is everywhere around us in society, even in such apparently benign places as country house museums (which might be seen as ‘normalising’ the class system in Britain). The discussion of the work of Raphael Samuel showed a different side of heritage, one in which it might be seen as a form of social action that helps build community cohesion and collective uncovering of alternate pasts at the local level. These two apparently opposing ways in which heritage can be seen to function will run as a thread throughout this course, so you will have the opportunity to think through and explore how they work in more detail as you progress.

I hope that this course and its associated study materials have introduced you to the rich diversity of global heritage and its academic study. I also hope that it has broadened your perception of what heritage ‘is’.