Critical Heritage

Under revision and edit – May 2020

Heritage is about the past-in-the-present.

Heritage is a particular manifestation of actuality, dynamic past-present engagement such as memory.

When you go on vacation it will not be just the cool breeze off the sea, the peace-bringing landscapes that you seek, but as much the local cuisine, the neighborhoods offering authentic encounter, and all the better if history echoes through the streets, if the villa on the hillside is as steeped in history as it looks. This is heritage – what remains of the past and is considered to be a collective cultural legacy. Our senses of identity and belonging seek out connections with the past, roots, cherished inheritance. The tourist industry thrives on heritage – it creates destinations worth visiting, and our encounters prompt us to reaffirm our sense of self.

Heritage is a global industry focused on ownership of cultural property.

It is not a coincidence that the heritage industry has grown so spectacularly since the 1980s as a globalist world of connected consumption confirms common identity. World heritage sites, places agreed by UNESCO to be of global cultural value, are a frequently encountered manifestation of heritage. Heritage simultaneously affirms the significance of the local, sources of authentic meaning in a world of sameness, of universal blue jeans and McDonald’s burgers. The anonymous global corporation insinuates itself into our lives and stands in contrast to an incessant search for friends and family, most ironically now through the global networks of social software and the online search for family tree.

In this world of significant pasts that afford points of reference, historical touchstones, senses of shared memory, mnemonic traces, heritage is a somewhat awkward term. It refers us to actuality, the importance of the past in the present, as the past makes us who we are, while also signaling that there is a problem of disconnection, that we are losing touch with the past, that the past is at risk and threatens to fall into ruin and disappear. To some the word may signify a conservative nostalgia for a past now lost. Heritage is a key component of nationalist sentiment – national identities frequently emphasize shared experiences of history. Some certainly see in mainstream heritage a distortion of what happened in the past in the service of present interests: a site of religious struggle may come to signify, through its fine architecture, the artistic achievements of a nation, forgetful of the suffering. To others the notion of heritage may signal too much of an orientation on the past, diverting attention from a more appropriate focus upon the present and future.

semantic field

A most significant component of memory today is the heritage industry. This vast and lucrative field is about conserved cultural property (material and immaterial), sites and collections, artifacts and traditions, galleries and museums, art and antiques auction rooms, family genealogy, tourist sites and activities, and popular media offering innumerable versions of history’s standard narratives, in the sense defined above.

Heritage is mostly about property, ownership, valued assets. Like narrative, heritage is a mode of simplification – reducing complex history to inheritance, property items owned by and transfered through delimited social groups such as nation states and ethnic communities. Reification is involved, turning the ways people create their lifeworlds into fixed forms to be exchanged, traded, owned. And alienation: when the key concern is ownership, there are those that are included – “This is ours”, and those that are excluded – “Ours, not yours!”.

How might we still realize the power of memory, in the face of this heritage industry?

As with narrative, the challenge is to realize that memory practices are so important because they are the mobilization of the past in orienting creative handling of uncertainty. Memory is the actualization of the past. Rather than on property, focus on pragmatics. In telling stories of the past, in performing the remains of the past, we make connections in the now and for the future, staging an account, a dramaturgy that might explore, inform and orient, that we might act to answer a need or desire.     , that we might design a better future. The challenge is not to find a better, more accurate account of what happened in history, or to define what essential components should be preserved as legacy. The challenge is to realize the multiplicity of history, that the past matters in as much as it opens up creative potential.

It is this ambiguity and awkwardness that requires us to be careful with the term – what is needed is a critical attitude – critical heritage.

Critical heritage acknowledges that this is a dynamic and charged field and we should focus on the processes that connect past and present, processes summarized in the concept of actuality. Heritage is all about the work done with what remains of the past. This is why it is appropriate to call this the heritage industry.

For an example of such an argument for performative intervention:


new edition – Links


World Heritage – Hadrian’s Wall – built in the second century to mark the edge of the Roman empire

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