What is heritage?

Post number 1. Let’s start with the really knotty question. The big one. The one that comes up whenever I mention what I study.
What is heritage?
The most common guess is ‘Like, stately homes and stuff?’
Yes. Also no.

‘Official heritage’

The first thing to know is that there is more than one definition of cultural heritage.
Number one is the ‘official’ definition, the one which makes it into the statute books and which qualifies particular things for protection from unwanted changes. That, depending on which country you’re in, will usually cover places, archaeological sites, buildings and objects which rate highly somewhere in the golden square of historic value (connected to a major person or event); aethesthetic or artistic value (being really pretty); technical inguenity (a ground-breaking example of engineering or architectural achievement); and evidential value (often the driest one for non-sciencey types, describing the potential information it could offer about past lives and activities).
The Eiffel Tower, a symbol of modern engineering genius. Architectural-technical value: off the scale. Image from https://pixabay.com/en/eiffel-tower-lovely-photo-2810259/
So, for example, the current legislation in England allows buildings to be placed on a ‘nationally significant’ list and monitored if they meet the criteria of
  • Architectural interest (thanks to architectural design, decoration or craftsmanship),
  • Special interest (ambiguous sounding, but don’t worry! It’s narrowed down to ‘nationally important examples of particular building types and techniques, for example buildings displaying technological innovation or virtuosity’), and
  • Historic interest (buildings which ‘illustrate important aspects of England’s social, economic, cultural or military history, have close historical associations with nationally important people, and normally have some quality of interest in its physical fabric’).
There are similar conditions for archaeological sites and monuments. And it doesn’t stop there: English legislation protects not only buildings and monuments, but also parks and gardens, battlefields, and shipwrecks.
Stonehenge: a world famous archaeological site, valued for the evidence it offers about human dragging stones across the country thousands of years ago (for as-yet unknown reasons). Image from pixabay.com/en/ancient-landmark-monument-1835210/
 So, that is the standard type of heritage, the one that includes a lot of official monuments or historic castles and mostly functions as a ticklist of places which meet specific criteria.
The next definition of heritage I’ll throw in the mix is what I describe as personal heritage.
The site of the 1745 Battle of Culloden: low on architectural interest, but very significant in British history. Image from pixabay.com/en/tombstone-battlefield-scotland-2094202/

Personal heritage

How many times have you heard a North American discuss their romantic Scottish or Irish ‘heritage’? Or a local campaign group call to save a building which is part of their own town’s heritage, claimed by a community?
These aren’t just genes or physical landscape features they’re talking about. Our American friend doesn’t have any artefacts passed down from the Scottish side of the family; that Save Our Building campaign didn’t care at all when the multi storey car park one street over disappeared. Heritage, in this sense, is something that belongs to every one of us, that we claim to be a part of ourselves.
And what this means, of course, is that everyone has a different heritage. Where you live has a heritage, your family has a heritage, your nationality has a heritage. Your gender and religion and class have their own heritages. When someone threatens to tear down a building or close a park that is part of our own personal heritage, we are not only threatened on a moral level (won’t somebody please think of the children??) but on a personal level; our own world, the part of it that we recognise and which holds our own memories on the physical plane, is under threat.
For example, take the recent uproar in the USA over the retention vs removal of statues of Confederate or pro-slavery historical figures. What is public art to one person is a proud example of family or community history to another, and a legacy of oppression and violence to a third. Without the personal element, these statues would simply be public art or a historical monument. This is because individuals carry their own heritage with them at all times.
And these personal legacies doesn’t even have to be something physical, a tangible object or place. Intangible heritage – something physically formless like a skill, a piece of music, or a story – can also act as a memento. Sada Mire, for example, has argued strongly that Somalian refugees do not rely on objects to remind them of their pasts; drawing on the nomadic traditions of their people, instead they use skills learned from their forebears to connect themselves to their heritage. That knowledge is more meaningful to them as individuals than any archaeological artefact.
Clear so far? This personal heritage brings us on to the third and final definition of heritage: the academic. This is simultaneously the most complicated and the most simple of the three.

Academic heritage

Heritage theory, which has gathered pace quickly in recent decades, realised that individuals claim places and things as part of their own heritages regardless of whether they were part of the first ‘official’ checklist of aesthetic, ingenious, evidential or historical importance. So heritage, for individuals, is what is important for their own sense of history and identity; what shapes their place in the world.
So rather than classifying heritage by age, or by technicalities of construction, theorists suggest that heritage is constantly being made and remade, as people create their own links to their surroundings.
As John Schofield succinctly put it, ‘Cultural heritage is not a thing.’ It is a process of seeing yourself as connected to a thing, through the prism of nationality, gender, location, or family. We cannot know what things people will choose – a public statue, a stately home, a local park, a pub, a song, grandmother’s jewellery, a family recipe? But nor can we choose for them.
See what I mean by both simple and complicated? Any thing can be heritage, but heritage is not a thing. Anyone can define their own heritage, but they can’t make anyone else relate to it. We recognise heritage as defined by other people, but we can’t actually recognise it until they tell us what it is.
Confused yet? I’m only just getting started. And next time you ask someone studying heritage what they do, make yourself a cup of tea, and settle down for a long chat.


6 thoughts on “What is heritage?

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