Heritage?

The word heritage use to make me yawn. I associated it with visiting my grandparent’s house as a child where the perfectly preserved 1950s interior was equally dull as it was formal. Almost all socializing took place in the dimly lit front living room; I’d stare out the window, to the street, and wonder how long before I’d be excused from listening to stories about the past so that I could go outside and play.

For fear of making you yawn, I’ll refrain from further descriptions of this domestic interior and conclude by saying that I always thought heritage was something for people stuck in the past. It was what academics got into just before they decided to retire.

These past three months I’ve had many opportunities to think about heritage. The first began at the conference of Critical Heritage in Gothenburg, Sweden and continued when I left Sweden and went to India. Ironically, as soon as I arrived in the ‘field’ to, in fact, research a heritage landscape, I almost immediately forgot about heritage as a discourse. See, I was so busy enjoying the heritage that organically makes its way into everyday life—sunset from Hamakuta Hill, wading in the Tungabhadra River along side the shore temple, finding remnants of 400 year old clay pots on a cricket field—that I failed to do what all good researchers emphasize—write immediately!

Now I’m home and have no choice but try to make sense of my observations. As I reflect on the meaning of heritage, I can’t help but think of an overly simplified interpretation of Lacan’s mirror stage. The child, prior to this stage, does not recognize itself as separate from the mother. Similarly, I found that most residents in Anegundi (the village I did most my research in) do not see heritage as distinct from their landscape or daily life. Like the child’s relationship to the breast, heritage is nourishment that comes naturally; it is within, around, and never completely separate from the individual, the community, or the landscape.

Now I’m not suggesting that residents of Anegundi have the mental capacity of a breast-fed child, I’m trying to emphasize that symbolic moment when the child is placed in front of the mirror and forced to recognize that it is autonomous yet dependent on the mother. There is something beyond the mother and the child, a social order (for Lacan this would be language) that establishes and maintains this rupture. Just as the mirror affirms that mother and child are not one, the mirror affirms that heritage and community heritage/heritage and landscape can be separated, controlled, and pivoted against one another.

The heritage that was once within is now external, available to the international organization, the national government, the state government, the department of tourism…the American doctoral student, to be freely consumed, interpreted, and repositioned accordingly. Heritage becomes an economic driver that must be regulated, marketed, and even protected from the very people it lives within.

I’m new to the academic study of heritage. I have no literature review on which to base my assumptions, only impressions. Another impression I have is that international dialogue about heritage is similar to dialogue about international development–overtly colonial in belief and approach. Like colonialism, development and heritage are about management. There is a right approach and a wrong approach and it is the economically stronger countries that determine how economically weaker countries should manage their heritage so that they don’t destroy it.

This leads me to another word I’ve spent some time thinking about: inheritance. Inheritance is a word that divides families and inspires soap operas to run for multiple years. It is also a word that is related to heritage. When a family member dies, the inheritance, if any, is divided, but not always equally. In America I hear the word inheritance more than I hear the word heritage. We inherited the right to own land–that is our freedom, our legacy, and our interpretation of democracy. It is the heritage of a national ideology and it is meant to appeal both to the collective history of the nation and our personal right to participate in it.

It makes me queasy.

Unfortunately, I lost my notebook (damn you Delta airlines!) with all the CRUCIAL notes I wrote regarding my impressions of heritage in these two very different locations. So, I’ll now proceed to trail off with a few scattered words that I’m hoping will help inspire to me begin this monolith of a project write-up.

Culture

Value

Intellectual property

(What is the relationship between heritage, culture, value, and intellectual property? Is intellectual property the ‘value’ of culture? Is heritage a property so to speak? Would recognizing it as property be the best way to ‘conserve’ heritage? Does the conservation of culture make heritage (like, if I put culture in the oven and set a timer, does it become heritage)?

At the Gothenburg conference there was an afternoon session with a wonderful speaker named Tracey Ireland she used a lot of really interesting words in relation to each other. Here are a few:

Archaeology as place making:

“memory archive”

Archeological landscape                               Archeology as site of focus                      Symbolic site types…linking to cultural memory.

“Spatial inscription”

How old does heritage have to be?

(Contrast between old and new, does it inevitably suggest that some kind of ‘progress’ is happening? When heritage and development work together are we advocating to preserve the past, move forward, and eradicate the middle?)

There was also this guy Michael Falser:

Object to agency

De/Re…political terms…a constant process of renegotiation.

Decolonization then becomes an act of recolonization

Cultural performance vs. historical reenactment.

Rights approach vs systems approach

Throw public history into that mix.

On erasure…there is no global and no local.

(Okay, on this last point I want to say that I am sick, SICK of talking about global and local, even if it is to talk about how there is no global and no local. We need to stop wasting our breath, and our brain cells on this. I would argue it’s more useful to talk about private and public space. Maybe I will talk about this more in my next post.)

Lastly, let me leave you with a few more thoughts I have (at random)

  • I don’t think anyone in heritage discourse is talking about Iris Marion Young’s ideas about inclusiveness and democracy.
  • Sameness and difference…does heritage emphasize one over the other or both simultaneously? Heritage, well, in the UNESCO context is about the inscription of ‘universal’ values. It’s universal until the individual sites become sites of difference as the daily life of people living in the site is sacrificed in the name of the universal value. What values are universal? I think this is where Young would add to the discussion.
  • Conceptual vs every day life.
  • Heritage–>tradition–>‘freezing’ of culture so that it can be represented.
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