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Cultural heritage includes the sites, things, and practices a society regards as old, important, and worthy of conservation. It is currently the subject of increasing popular and scholarly attention worldwide, and its conceptual scope is expanding. Most social scientists emphasize its functions for supporting ethnic, national, and elite interests but others point to its creative and counterhegemonic sides. The research paper reviews the relation of heritage with tourism and nostalgia, dissonant/negative heritage, heritage and religion, rural and urban heritage, and heritage institutions, in particular the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and its conventions. People’s personal attachments to heritage deserve further study.
Cultural heritage is usually taken to mean the sites, movable and immovable artifacts, practices, knowledge items, and other things that a group or society has identified as old, important, and therefore worthy of conscious conservation measures, often at the hands of specialized institutions. This invariably comprises only a selection of the total cultural repertory, much of which may not be perceived with similar consciousness. Such a use of ‘heritage’ is a relatively recent extension of the original lexical meaning of individual heirloom to a collective level, as is also true for corresponding terms in other languages such as ‘patrimoine’/‘patrimonio.’ Cultural heritage overlaps with a number of other phenomena and terms, to the point of interchangeable usage, such as cultural property (which is often more clearly delimited and not always old), tradition (which more clearly points to collective practices and to informal modes of transmission, excluding, for example, the works of individual artists that might nonetheless be seen as heritage), social memory and sites of memory/‘lieux de mémoire’ (where the focus is on contemporary commemorative practices), and culture (which in its broad anthropological sense is not restricted to old and publicly recognized things). Tradition in the sense of public traditions is particularly close in meaning, and it appears that much that was discussed under this term in the 1980s is now coming back under a new label. In general, cultural heritage is less used as an analytic term in anthropology where alternatives such as culture, material culture, or performative culture are preferred; rather, it points to the public gaze on old cultural things that is of interest as a social phenomenon.
Attention for and reference to cultural heritage is growing, with many commentators diagnosing a ‘heritage boom’ or even a ‘cult of heritage’ in contemporary Western society from sometime around the 1960s on. This includes a conceptual expansion where things previously thought unworthy such as petrol stations, hay barns, or everyday dishes qualify for heritage status too. Intangible cultural heritage is establishing itself as a new category, including performances, crafts, and more ephemeral entities such as cultural spaces, and there is even talk of digital heritage now. Not only nation states, local communities, and civil-society organizations participate in this process but also international bodies such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and they have helped to spread heritage discourses and practices to all corners of the globe. Heritage conservation is universally acknowledged as a moral obligation, and the days when high modernism and socialist cultural revolutions aimed to wipe out large portions of the past in favor of a new society appear remote now.
The bulk of the total textual production on heritage is celebratory, and the bulk of academic research is still done in such fields as art history, architecture, and archaeology on the heritage items proper and on the practical problems of their conservation and presentation, such as restoration techniques, management questions, or juridical aspects. Museum studies have long established themselves as an independent domain. The social sciences contribute modestly to these applied fields, such as when investigating the social messages of museums and exhibitions, when estimating the monetary value of cultural goods, or indirectly when training museum and conservation practitioners (such as curators in ethnographic museums who have degrees in anthropology).
The remainder of this research paper, however, is concerned with the basic research done by anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, and modern historians on the social, political, and economic contexts of cultural heritage and its conservation in situ, which is outside an indoor museum or archival context. Corresponding to the general growth of attention, this is a burgeoning field, with new training centers and interdisciplinary programs in ‘World Heritage Studies’ and the like mushrooming and book series and journals such as the International Journal of Heritage Studies and the International Journal of Cultural Property blossoming. The founding conference of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies in Gothenburg (Sweden) in 2012, for instance, attracted 500 paper proposals – five times as many as expected – and a large majority did not employ a narrowly applied perspective.
Dominant in this new strand of research is a critical approach that for specific heritage items or ‘heritagization’ in general pinpoints the gaps between official, most often celebratory discourses, and the actual historical trajectories, selective amnesia, and true motives – often of commercialization and collective self-elevation – involved. Four common assumptions dominate these analyses, which the author has elsewhere called falsification, petrification, desubstantiation, and enclosure (Brumann, 2009). In an often taken-for-granted way, labeling places, things, or practices as cultural heritage is assumed to falsify ‘real’ history; petrify what may no longer evolve as freely as more ordinary, unmarked culture; strip it of its original values and meanings, leaving only the heritage label; and claim it as the possession of a particular community, ethnic or religious group, class, or nation, thereby excluding other such groups. Such assumptions are shared by the founding figures of current critical heritage studies, such as geographer David Lowenthal (1985, 1996) or cultural historian Robert Hewison (1987). But they are also often present in a slightly older interest in the selective appropriation of traditions for contemporary purposes, traditions which in most cases just as well could be labeled heritage. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s ‘invention of tradition’ approach (1983) has proved stimulating across the social sciences and humanities. In the most famous case study of the volume, historian Hugh Trevor-Roper dismantles the myths surrounding the kilt, showing how army regiments, nationalist urban intellectuals, a fraudulent brother pair, and a cloth manufacturer smelling business all contributed to transforming the eighteenth-century creation of an Englishman into the timeless emblem of Scottishness. In addition to Hobsbawm and Ranger’s home discipline of history, anthropologists have been particularly receptive to this approach, providing scores of similar case studies. They have also been most active in dismantling the idea of true history lying beneath the beautification of official traditions, as inherent in Hobsbawm’s distinction of ‘custom’ and ‘genuine traditions’ from the invented ones (1983: pp. 2–3, 8). Instead, Handler and Linnekin argue that “[t]he origin of cultural practices is largely irrelevant to the experience of tradition; authenticity is always defined in the present. It is not pastness or givenness that defines something as traditional. Rather, the latter is an arbitrary symbolic designation; an assigned meaning rather than an objective quality” (1984: p. 286). This leaves socially positioned claims about the past only. Particularly in indigenous rights claims, such a relativist position has proved quite challenging to sustain (cf. e.g., Clifford, 1988: pp. 277– 346; Hanson, 1989, 1991).
The four common assumptions are also present in archaeologist Laurajane Smith’s (2006) widely quoted formulation of the “authorized heritage discourse” or “AHD.” She likewise argues that heritage is not simply there but constituted through social practice, and while the AHD and its claim of salvaging the past for the (nebulously defined) benefit of future generations serve the interests of the middle and upper classes and nationalist aspirations, their main function is to strengthen the control of professional experts and institutions over the heritage in question. This tendency often prevails even against these specialists’ best intentions, and it tends to disregard the expertise and deny the rights of nonprofessional heritage carriers, especially subaltern ones such as the working class or indigenous peoples. Even more sinister is heritage in the cultural criticism formulated by British authors who see the boom as a sign of general malaise. “Worship of a bloated heritage invites passive reliance on received authority, imperils rational inquiry, replaces past realities with feel-good history, and saps creative innovation,” writes David Lowenthal (1996: p. 12) and sees “[p]rejudiced pride in the past” as “not a sorry consequence of heritage; it is its essential purpose” (1996: p. 122). And archaeologist Kevin Walsh finds that “[h]eritage successfully mediates all our pasts as ephemeral snapshots exploited in the present . to guarantee the success of capital in its attempt to develop new superfluous markets” (1992: p. 149). Several commentators have seen such attacks as amounting to ‘heritage-baiting’ (Pickering and Keightley, 2006: p. 934; Samuel, 1994: p. 263).
Yet there are also more benign views of the social role of traditions and cultural heritage and caveats against a purely deconstructive analysis. Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has charged the invention approach with being functionalist. Using the example of sumo wrestling, a famous piece of Japanese cultural heritage whose modern appearance is clearly a nineteenth- century creation, he questions whether the latter can be explained by “some group’s quest for power, material gain, resistance or a need of identity” alone (1999: p. 407). He rather argues that “modern sumo is clearly a permutation of older forms and relationships . That it might be suitably reinvented to fit the occasion might better be understood as a sign of vitality rather than of decadence” (1999: pp. 408–409). “Inventiveness of tradition” (1999: p. 408) is therefore the more apposite phrase, and Terence Ranger himself would prefer “invention by” – rather than “of” – tradition in hindsight (1993: p. 76). Such creativity itself may be an indicator of traditionality, as argued by anthropologist Christopher Tilley (1997) who, after thoroughly deconstructing a ritual performance that his Wala informants devised for a tourist audience, points out how this bricolage follows a very traditional Melanesian mode of recombining home-grown and imported cultural resources into new forms. The alleged political conservatism of cultural heritage has also been questioned. Historian Richard Samuel emphasizes that preservation is politically chameleonic, “subject to quite startling reversals over very limited periods of time” (1994: p. 303) and “historically . a cause which owes at least as much to the Left as to the Right” (1994: p. 288). The latter is certainly borne out by the experience of urban residents the world over in their uphill battles against hegemonic development interests transforming old neighborhoods (e.g., Brumann, 2012). All this speaks strongly for attention to the details.
There is, however, a considerable number of empirical studies now that implement such a program, dissecting the multiplicity of voices and interests surrounding cultural heritage and focusing not just on the official spokespeople and discourses but also laypeople’s, nonofficial, and subaltern views. Anthropologists in particular have provided in-depth ethnographic studies. In his book on the Cretan town of Rethemnos (Rethymno), Herzfeld (1991) distinguishes between the ‘monumental time’ implicit in government protection of the medieval and early Renaissance architecture of the historic center, associated with the Venetians, and the ‘social time’ of the residents and their everyday lives. Conservation requirements imposed by external, mainly national, agencies and the manifold constraints on building alterations and extensions frustrate the residents. Yet in the course of time, many have also discovered the economic opportunities of tourism to the town, leaving them divided about the heritage regime. Joy (2011) describes the challenges that the World Heritage inscription of the mud architecture of the city of Djenné in Mali brings to its residents. The legacy of French colonial romanticism and a national government intent on gaining a place on the global cultural map imposed a conservation regime that helps to attract foreign tourists as one of the few sources of income. Yet many citizens feel a heavy burden when the regular remudding of houses consumes more resources than the less ‘authentic’ tiling of facades and when in a poverty-stricken environment, basic amenities such as a canalization are still lacking. An uneven distribution of benefits is also apparent at Chichén Itzá in Mexico, as reported by Breglia (2006). While everyone is proud of the global recognition of the site, almost the entire profits from the intense tourism bypass the local residents, with the single exception of the family that still privately owns the land on which the famous buildings stand. A handful of Mayan families, however – often the descendants of the workers who once excavated the site – retain their moderate privileges as the employed guards and shopkeepers, even when due to the relocation of their houses outside the boundaries, some of their personal ties to heritage, such as their football matches beneath the Great Pyramid, have been cut. More broadly distributed are the benefits of heritage in the rediscovery of the courtyard houses in the old city of Damascus, as studied by Salamandra (2004) prior to the current civil war. Old families, often from the former professional and entrepreneurial elite, had left for the suburbs, renting out the subdivided houses to rural migrants, but now they reclaim their homes, converting them to new purposes such as shops, galleries, and restaurants. Salamandra sees them as asserting symbolic dominance over the new political leadership, which lacks a long-standing connection to the city.
In Damascus, the turn to heritage is mainly an inner-urban phenomenon but in Djenné, Chichén Itzá, and elsewhere, tourism is a major force in the political economy of cultural heritage and a key motive for the conscious rearrangement of cultural practices. In a study of Maasai and Samburu heritage performances and colonial-style high tea on carefully tended lawns at a ranch near Nairobi, Bruner and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1994) found that organizers, performers, and tourists, through their scripted interaction, collaborate in creating ‘tourist realism.’ Volkman (1990) has spoken of ‘cultural editing’ when analyzing the way Toraja funerary rituals on Sulawesi are shortened, brought into a neat sequence – complete with a running commentary – and cleansed of bloody animal sacrifices. Such modifications aside, however, the importance for status that is enhanced by the presence of domestic and foreign visitors continues to be the dominant factor. Playing to tourists’ expectations may be a strategy to gain the resources needed for the continuation of traditional rituals deliberately kept from display, as Martinez reports for the Japanese pearl-divers’ village of Kuzaki (1990). Moving beyond instrumental considerations, John and Jean Comaroff (2009) propose an entirely new take, showing how in a range of cases drawn from the indigenous United States and South Africa, commercialization and tourist display is precisely what convinces the protagonists of having an authentic and respectable cultural heritage in the first place. Tourists are not defenseless against the dominant narratives of heritage sites anyway, as Bruner (1994) demonstrates for the open-air museum of New Salem, Abraham Lincoln’s erstwhile home. The visitors he talked to value a great variety of often unexpected qualities of the site and also engage with it in playful and ironic ways.
Several authors have identified nostalgia as a major force behind heritagization and heritage tourism, describing it as “an ambivalent longing to erase the temporal difference between subject and object of desire, shot through with not only the impossibility but also the ultimate unwillingness to reinstate what was lost” (Ivy, 1995: p. 10). Such sentiments and the associated visions of lost ‘Gemeinschaft’ wholeness are seen critically in the social sciences. Yet in a study of Stone Town, the historic center of Zanzibar City, and the range of nostalgias for different phases of the colonial and revolutionary past felt by the residents, Bissel acknowledges the possibility for these expressions to transcend a merely regressive mode (2005: p. 239). And Pickering and Keightley urge us to consider both the melancholic and the utopian potential of nostalgia, as it always entails a critique of current conditions (2006). To do so may presuppose a more fine-grained categorization such as that by Berliner (2012) who distinguishes ‘endo-nostalgia’ about an actually experienced past from the ‘exo-nostalgia’ of the Western tourists, conservation experts, and the UNESCO staff who all descend upon Luang Prabang and its Buddhist temples and colonial villas in recent years. He also emphasizes how much nostalgia is actually a transformative force in this former capital of the Lao kingdom, rather than conserving things.
Yet heritage conservation can also be motivated by the very opposite of nostalgia, a wish to preserve the memory of historical events and conditions in order to avoid their recurrence. Variously called dissonant, difficult, or negative heritage, such ‘’places of pain and shame” (Logan and Reeves, 2008) occupy a growing portion of contemporary heritage regimes. UNESCO’s World Heritage list, for example, features the Auschwitz concentration camp, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, or the Bikini nuclear test site. Bruner (1996) studied African-American roots tourism to Elmina Castle in Ghana, the main entrepôt for the North American slave trade and itself a World Heritage site. The tourists’ joint walk through the dungeons and the infamous ‘door of no return’ is an often overwhelming emotional experience, yet all the more disconcerting are encounters with the Ghanaians outside the castle for whom the guests are ‘obruni’ (whitemen) by virtue of their wealth, rather than long-last brothers and sisters returning ‘home.’ The meaning of such sites is often subject to constant negotiation, as Macdonald shows in her ethnography of the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg (2009). The site was locally downplayed in the immediate postwar period, not least because many in the (traditionally left-leaning) city felt that they were made to bear an unfair share of the Nazi legacy, but the tide changed around reunification when suspicions of negating the past became the least desirable option. Meskell (2002) has reflected on a special kind of ambiguous heritage, taking up public debates about how to interpret, preserve, and achieve ‘past mastering’ at Ground Zero and the empty Bamiyan Buddha niches, that is, sites of deliberate, public destruction. Aside from such signal acts, heritage may also provoke petty vandalism, such as in the ‘heritage iconoclasm’ Chalcraft (2012) observed in Tanzanian, Libyan, and Italian prehistoric rock art sites and interprets as resistance to the neocolonial aspects of the heritage regime.
Such contestation may arise from the fact that the things and practices recognized as heritage retain their older meanings, contrary to what the assumption of ‘desubstantiation’ (see above) would let us expect. This may be an entirely harmonious cohabitation, such as in the case of Kyoto where the ‘kyô-machiya’ houses and the Gion matsuri festival have become celebrated cultural heritage but continue to attract people also as beautiful, atmospheric, and ecological dwellings and as occasions for festive fun, entertainment, and supernatural protection (Brumann, 2009). But there are often also tensions, particularly between heritagization and religious significance. The sacred grove of the Yoruba goddess Osun in Osogbo, Nigeria – the site of a major rejuvenation of religious sculpture in the postindependence period and of an internationally visited annual festival – has over the years strengthened its heritage status, all the way to World Heritage inscription (Probst, 2011). One supporting factor is that traditional political authorities see themselves challenged by devout Christians and Muslims when they side with pagan religion, rather than supporting an emblem of transnational Yoruba heritage. Such an uneasy balance is not always attained, as the 2001 blasting of the stone Buddhas in Bamiyan by the Taliban or the recent destructions of the World Heritage-listed sufi saints’ tombs in Timbuktu attest to. Much as seeking the global stage was paramount for the perpetrators, they also challenged heritage primacy, insisting on applying a religious yardstick to what in certain fundamentalist interpretations are pagan and blasphemous sites.
The ramifications of cultural heritage, happy or sad, also depend on where exactly it is found or imagined to belong. In modern nations, the countryside, rural folk, and their traditional customs have often served as a projecting screen for – often themselves rather urban and intellectual – longings for primeval wholeness and uncontaminated values, as has been observed for a variety of countries. In my own work on Kyoto, I have ventured the hypothesis that urban cultural heritage is less easily hijacked by outsiders, given that wealth, power, and intellectual resources usually concentrate in cities, thus giving their inhabitants more defenses. Also, urban tastes for creative and cosmopolitan mixtures do not insist on presumably pristine representations of culture so much (Brumann, 2009, 2012).
Although overviews of the evolution of heritage conservation do exist (Jokilehto, 1999) and steps toward a critical social history of Western heritage institutions since their full-scale emergence in the nationalist ‘long nineteenth century’ have been taken (Hall, 2011; Swenson, 2013; Swenson and Mandler, 2013), a comprehensive analysis of the rise of modern institutional conservation and its key ideas, social organization, and wider contexts is still lacking. Some work on contemporary national heritage apparatuses has been done (e.g., Bendix et al., 2012; Hauser-Schäublin, 2011), notably on the Japanese system as the internationally most influential non-Western one (Brumann and Cox, 2010; Thornbury, 1997). Lynn Meskell (2012a) deconstructs the role of the governing institutions of Krueger National Park in South Africa, showing how neoliberal pressures and the hegemony of nature tourism and biodiversity lead to the neglect of the many archaeological and rock art sites in the park and also to a suppression of painful histories of racism and eviction. She is one among a growing number of practicing archaeologists who reflect in sensitive ways about the wider societal context of their own work and the involvement of heritage discourses (e.g., Karlström, 2009). Still, more studies like sociologist Nathalie Heinich’s in-depth analysis of the organization, underlying values, and hidden logic of the French ‘Inventaire’ (2009) appear called for, given that the influence of such bodies as the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Mexico or the Agency of Cultural Affairs (Bunkachô) in Japan is obvious from studies of cases under their governance (cf. Breglia, 2006; Brumann and Cox, 2010; Thornbury, 1997).
How exactly states deal with their cultural heritage depends increasingly on external actors. These include foundations such as the Getty Foundation, the Aga Khan Foundation, or the World Monuments Fund, the conventions and operations of international organizations such as the European Union, and the funding that bodies such as the World Bank or United Nations Development Programme provide. In particular, UNESCO with its portfolio of conventions is establishing itself as the supreme arbiter of global heritage standards and as an impetus for much national and regional regulation. Still best known and most coveted is the ‘Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage’ adopted in 1972, which now aims to protect close to 1000 cultural and natural sites inscribed on its prestigious list – including many of the above-mentioned cases – as the shared inheritance of humanity. Charges of Eurocentrism have led to a greater receptiveness for vernacular architecture, cultural landscapes, or dissonant heritage and to a selfconsciously ‘anthropological’ perspective. Dissatisfaction with the way the institution represents our world is growing, however, particularly among the heritage latecomers from the Global South that are now as adept at pushing their national interests in this forum as the Northern states (Brumann, 2011; Meskell, 2012b; Schmitt, 2009).
One consequence of this problem has been UNESCO initiatives to honor not only sites but also crafts, performative arts, and the like, first with proclamations of ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ from 2001 on and then with the adoption of a full-fledged ‘Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage’ in 2003. More so than World Heritage, which is widely regarded as the province of architects, art historians, and archaeologists, this process has involved anthropologists and folklorists on juries, advisory committees, and decision-making boards. Since national states are rushing to sign the treaty, this is replicated on the national level where the required institutional frameworks are currently taking shape. The governing organs of the new convention have likewise taken to listing, and what gets inscribed is partly informed by a rather conventional folkloristic perspective and partly very general – tango, the French gourmet meal, the Novruz festival. Contemporary anthropologists who are committed to more dynamic views of culture, which would see continuously evolving landscapes rather than neatly delimited and stable packages, have been skeptical of the intellectual merits of such an exercise (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2004) but some also acknowledge the possibilities of empowerment and improved preservation (e.g., Brown, 2005). Anthropologists, folklorists, and geographers pursue the institutional processes of the convention and their evolution (e.g., Bortolotto, 2010; Rudolff, 2010; Schmitt, 2008), some of them as full participants representing their countries in this arena (Hafstein, 2009; Kuutma, 2007). Several recent interdisciplinary collections attempt to take stock of the intangible cultural heritage (ICH) phenomenon too (Arizpe, 2011; Bortolotto, 2011; Smith and Akagawa, 2009). As this convention is still very much in the formative period, its further fate and growth curve will remain interesting to follow.
All global-level institutionalization and politicization aside, the fact remains that many people feel personally attached and committed to heritage things and practices. The label as such may have limited meaning for them, and their historicities may be alternative ones, such as those of festival participants in Kyoto who are less impressed by the documented great age of some of the paraphernalia but by being a link in a chain of transmission that reaches back centuries (Brumann, 2012: p. 239). Rarely are such attachments explored systematically at the individual level, although McCracken’s sketch of a ‘curatorial consumer’ points the way (1988: pp. 44–56). Beyond all instrumentalization, things that last – resisting change and transcending our own life spans – inspire awe among many people in many societies. This throws up very basic philosophical questions about a panhuman “desire for grounded materiality” (Meskell, 2002: p. 559) and invites further studies relating heritage with the wider context of materiality, performativity, notions of (im)permanence (Karlström, 2009), and emotions in the specific cultural context. As for sentiments, critical heritage researchers may want to reflect on their own, including their positions in and funding by institutions premised on the very commitments to heritage they like to dissect.
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