Understanding the Politics of Heritage

Edited by Rodney Harrison. 2010. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press. 328 pages. ISBN: 978-0-7190-8152-1 (soft cover).


Reviewed by E. Moore Quinn, College of Charleston

[Review length: 1148 words • Review posted on October 22, 2013]


This work, edited by Rodney Harrison and written in large part by him, is the first in a series of three books created for an Open University interdisciplinary course entitled “Understanding Global Heritage.” The purpose of the course is to confront ideas regarding the conservation of heritage. It meets its goal by seeking to examine the relationship between “official” examples of heritage, that is to say, those established by power and privilege, and “unofficial” ones, those preserved at more modest community levels. To construct their argument, Harrison and his Open University colleagues hark to Michel Foucault’s 1971 understanding of “discourse” as the expression of an institutionalized worldview. More pointedly, they borrow from archaeologist Laurajane Smith’s term, “authentic heritage discourse” (2006). Abbreviated as AHD, Smith’s model acknowledges the work of Norman Fairclough (1985) and his method of critical discourse analysis (CDA).

Against the AHD conceptualization of heritage as a tangible and corporate “fixed text” is pivoted an actor-oriented one. In this “cultural action” model, individuals are regarded as capable of using heritage to produce or reproduce their communities (Arjun Appadurai 2006; 2008). Heritage is thought to be composed of intangible elements like oral traditions and bodily movements; both have the potential to build identities and/or repair communities.

As the chapters unfold, they chronicle additional theoretical issues regarding heritage politics. In the United Kingdom after the Second World War, for instance, one Robert Hewison labeled the proliferation of nostalgia-inducing tourist sites “the heritage industry.” The phenomenon, he suggested, encouraged visitors not to look forward to a new future but backward toward a constructed and mythologized past.

Despite Hewison’s and others’ claims, by 1964, it was clear that the “return to an untrammeled past” perspective was holding sway. In that year, The Venice Charter, arguably epitomizing the aforementioned ideology of AHD, established a set of international guidelines aimed at the preservation and restoration of ancient buildings. Ian Donnachie comprehensively rehearses the ten criteria that emerged from the Charter; both cultural and natural, they are used to this day to determine if sites qualify for UNESCO’s World Heritage status.

The methodology of “critical heritage study” dominates this collection. It means, to quote Audrey Linkman and Rodney Harrison, “‘thinking about’ heritage: why do we value particular objects, places, and practices from the past more than others? How does heritage function within society? If we memorialize some aspects of heritage, what other aspects might we forget in the process?”

Building on these questions, Linkman presents an overview of the history of photography. She discusses why the photograph was thought to be an instrument of objectivity and, as such, why it was deemed to be particularly useful for legal and medical professionals. Detailing how aspects of any picture could be framed, shaped, and altered (then as well as now), Linkman explains why the objectivity argument in terms of photography proved unsustainable. On the other hand, she shows how the Yolngu Aboriginal people of northern Australia are able to use photographs of their ancestors taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson in the 1930s to reinvigorate their present-day culture. In this way, Linkman contends, photographs can acquire a particular type of heritage status.

The success of the volume lies in evidence like this, which demonstrates the nuances and strategies—not to mention the pains and sufferings—at work in the commemoration of heritage. In terms of the latter, Harrison discusses the difficulties faced by Australian Aboriginal peoples in their heroic efforts to have their ancestors’ remains repatriated from the British Museum. Lotte Hughes provides ethnographic details of how the Kenyan National Museum (KNM) functions as an arm of the government to sanitize the facts of history and quell dissent. Hughes argues that such silencing has backfired because Kenyans, despite legal restrictions against them, have created community museums in order to showcase their artifacts of cultural memory. In other instances, and despite government interdict, Indigenous members of this society are using GPS and other modern technologies to map ancestral landscapes and to restore herbal and environmental knowledge.

Another carefully presented perspective is encountered in the editor’s coverage of one of the world’s major heritage controversies, that surrounding the Parthenon Marbles (aka the Elgin Marbles, named after Lord Elgin, who removed them to Britain between 1801 and 1810 when he served as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire). For years, the Greek government has requested that the Parthenon Marbles be returned; in spite of UNESCO’s consistent recommendation in favor of sending them back, British Museum personnel have steadfastly refused. They claim, in what might be considered “true AHD style,” that the Parthenon Marbles are “part of everyone’s shared heritage”; they “transcend cultural boundaries” (180).

In Harrison’s view, determining whether the marble sculptures and friezes should or should not be returned is less interesting a question than questions related to the shaping of the debate and the continual interrogation of where answers to it might lead. These methodologies are what constitute for him the “heart and soul” of critical heritage scholarship.

Other case studies address industrial heritage (in the case of New Lanark, Scotland); heritage and class (in the case of the English country house); and heritage and diplomacy (in the case of the 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Valley Buddhas of Afghanistan). Space does not allow for a full exposition of these or other essays in the collection; however, it is fitting to single out for special praise Richard Allen’s elegant coverage of heritage and nationalism in India. Drawing upon historical evidence related to the Taj Mahal, the New Delhi Museum, and the Babri Masjid (Babar’s Mosque), Allen elaborates on the bases upon which heritage might be defined. He demonstrates effectively that, in India, history, law, religion, science, and even the “will of the people” serve as deserving candidates.

Despite this book’s many virtues, it suffers from the kinds of flaws that aggravate students and professors alike. A good editor would have improved it; likewise, a clear explanation of why several chapters are co-authored by the editor is needed, especially because when the personal pronoun “I” is used in those chapters, its specific reference is not revealed. Redundancy is a more serious issue; early editorial decisions regarding “who is going to cover what” should have been made in the interest of producing a tighter book. The glossary should have been more comprehensive, especially when one considers that readers seek an easy place to find definitions of terms. Finally, the use of emboldened text should have been consistent across chapters.

In the final analysis, Understanding the Politics of Heritage is recommended for those eager to apprise themselves of some of the debates and theoretical “takes” on the subject. The case studies are compelling, and the overall tone is nuanced and inquisitive. In this latter regard and to their credit, the authors avoid the imposing stance of AHD and lend credence to the idea that heritage can be produced in fresh and exciting ways.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.