Guilty pleasures

History, as the saying go, is written by the winners. And traditionally, heritage sites have told stories of triumphs, victories and progress. But what about the losers of history?

There is no such thing as a perfect heritage site or object. Every place, thing, or experience that we classify as heritage is bound about with history, stories – and, therefore, emotions. These are not within the control of those who curate and interpret heritage; individuals form their own attachments and opinions of heritage depending on their individual and communal associations and points of view. What might to one visitor be a carefully curated work of craftsmanship might to another visitor be an object of religious veneration, and for yet another might be a symbol of subjugation under a colonial and post-colonial Western regime which appropriated another country’s heritage for its own purposes.

downton abbey
Downton Abbey, the popular period drama series written by Conservative Peer Julian Fellowes, has been accused of perpetuating right-wing attitudes through its idyllic depiction of historical class relations. Image from Flickr.

So do heritage managers have a responsibility to show the less pretty sides to their heritage? Telling only winners’ stories: is it economic sense as tourists come for their easy escapism, or does it limit our audiences to only those who have not been on the losing side of history? Are stories about violence, prejudice and theft going to put off visitors, or do the simplistic stories of bucolic harmony simply fuel a dangerous nostalgia for a false idyllic past?

And does responsibility lie with the heritage managers, or with the audiences? If a heritage manager is creating interpretive materials for a stately home which do not mention that it was created by exploiting the labour of slaves on plantations, are they deliberately excluding a whole community of people and their descendants from the historical narrative – and thereby from having a claim as stakeholders in the heritage site – or creating propaganda which uses the architectural achievements of the historical ruling class to excuse or justify their horrific abuse of other human beings? If visitors appreciate on an aesthetic level a display of heritage which they know to be ethically or politically problematic, are they implicated in continuing and legitimising the power structures displayed within it? For example – by paying to enter the British Museum, am I implicitly supporting its retention of artefacts stolen from indigenous communities around the world during Britain’s colonial period? Or does the educational potential offered by the curation and exhibition of these artefacts outweigh any claim of hereditary or communal ownership?

An image of the front of the British museum in the sunshine, showing a wide building covered with neo-classical pillars
The British Museum: once – and perhaps still – a symbol of the wealth at the heart of the British Empire. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Maybe none of these questions matter. Many heritage audiences do not come for a political experience, but simply for leisure. The aesthetic or experiential appreciation of a site, object or performance do not automatically imply an ethical approval of its creation or history.

Nevertheless, just as heritage managers have no control over the individual connections which people may make with heritage, it is also impossible to control how people will selectively use heritage to create their own identity and world view. An uncritical interpretation as the past may lead to reactive, exclusionary political views in the present, if heritage narratives seem to confirm and bolster the idea that the world was simpler or easier to navigate in the past, or that others have less “right” to be part of your community or nation that you yourself. See, for example, the controversy which faced Mary Beard when she claimed a 2000-year history of ethnic diversity in Britain, or Labour leader Corbyn’s political pledge to return the Elgin Marbles and other artefacts brought to Britain by colonial collectors to their original homes. These topics spark current political debate because heritage impacts on our own sense of self.

On the right a text panel reads "This is the story of how the transatlantic slave trade operated. It shows what happened to enslaved Africans - their sufferings on the Middle Passage across the Atlantic, and the lives they led in the Americas. It tells how Europeans have benefited from slavery." On the left, two people look at a display.
When heritage confronts the politics of the past: The International Slavery Museum, Liverpool

And to highlight where these modern-world implications may arise from heritage as it is: enter critical heritage theorists.

Critical heritage theory is well named: its role is to pull apart the traditions and assumptions which underlie heritage practice – an important task which forces the heritage sector to justify or change the way it curates and presents legacies of the past. As heritage scholars, we have an enthusiasm for the stories heritage can tell, and believe in sharing those as openly and widely as possible. Yet in attempting to improve the heritage sector, critical theory can sometimes end up overwhelming it with all that needs to change – and overwhelming ourselves with constant negativity.

We may enjoy visiting heritage sites, and yet feel guilty that we are emotionally committing to an prejudiced or exclusionary narrative. Does being aware of every viewpoint really excuse reaping the rewards of privilege in our heritage appreciation?

Perhaps what matters more than our emotional reaction to heritage is our practical reaction. If we enjoy certain aspects of heritage, we want to share that experience. Broadening our heritage categorisations and interpretation to tell more stories – looking to what we can add to deepen our knowledge and understanding in the future – is more productive and more inclusive than wholly rejecting heritage as it is now. We do not need to forget our past in order to learn from in – in fact, quite the opposite.


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