Heritage is a Mess!

We made a great start last week in teasing out many of the fundamental issues facing the heritage sector, thanks to the three workshop cases with which we were presented. Making sense of it all is proving a problem. These are just a few rambling personal reflections.

I became increasingly aware of how messy the whole ‘heritage thing’ is and how we need to find a way that handles that mess creatively. It may not necessarily be the best idea to try to analyse, compartmentalise and control the mess, following normal managerial instincts. Sometimes it may be better to enable the mess to work itself out in its own way and to simply provide parameters within which that can happen, along with tools and guidelines to enable the process. That may be something that the ‘corporate’ side of the heritage sector will find very difficult to accept. Museum trustees and management, local authority planning and development teams, major funding bodies and national policy makers each have their own agendas and like their boxes to be ticked.

Which all raises the fundamental question – whose heritage is it anyway? That is probably the messiest part, unanswerable as the question may prove to be.

Another question that for me has grown larger since last week is – what relation does Heritage really have to History? At Bede’s World I threw into the discussion mix the seemingly odd statement: “Heritage is your friend”. Not surprisingly, stunned bemusement was the average response! For me it has a corollary to do with History, which I haven’t quite worked out yet.

In relation to the idea that ‘heritage means different things to different people for different reasons at different times’, which underlies the messiness mentioned above, ‘Heritage’ (with a capital H) tends to solidify the mess around some central, local and specific definition, which then becomes somebody’s job, career or purpose in life, even if there are some internal contests around this. In the same way that ‘community’ is generally regarded as a cosy, inclusive thing that solidifies into something exclusive, with boundaries round it, heritage can also become exclusive, more especially when it, too, becomes attached to community and identity, two of the most frequently quoted buzz words.

History on the other hand, drawing on its analytical and critical values, will tend to constantly question, challenge and maybe undermine ‘Heritage’, even as ‘History’ is drawn upon to justify heritage values. It’s an uncomfortable conundrum, another part of the mess and I’m not sure if it ticks anybody’s boxes.

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2 thoughts on “Heritage is a Mess!

  1. Pingback: Workshop 1: A research motto and some productive messiness | How should decisions about heritage be made?

  2. Pingback: What’s heritage again? Anarchic publicness and other discussions at York’s Alternative History | York's Alternative History

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