One person’s heritage is another’s can of worms

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Source: Heritage Perth (via Richard Offen)

The concept of ‘heritage’ is fraught with problems. It’s situated where a community’s past and present values collide. Often invoked in major civic disputes, heritage signifies different things to different groups and in different contexts. Caught up in the challenge of appraising and managing material resources that some people cherish but others don’t, it’s publicly embroiled in frequent conflict.

To engage with heritage issues is to confront not only the perplexities and passions of ordinary citizens but also the dilemmas of government authorities and other bodies shouldering difficult conservation responsibilities.

All of this makes it a vitally important field of study in higher education. By providing courses and research expertise in Heritage Studies, producing graduates who understand the subtleties of interrogating as well as administering heritage values, a university can contribute substantially to informed debate and decision-making in a contested area of public policy.

So I’m delighted that The University of Western Australia has now launched an ambitious postgraduate course in heritage, filling a big gap in my home state. The Master of Heritage Studies will be taught for the first time in 2015 and should attract a substantial number of enrolments within Australia and overseas, to judge from the course outline.

In an earlier post on the general purpose of universities, I proposed four criteria that any field of enquiry should meet if it merits a place in higher education. How does a course in Heritage Studies measure up?

1. A capacity to advance knowledge through disinterested investigation.
The study of heritage rests partly on the same general foundation as history, but has an intrinsically broad interdisciplinary scope. It operates at the boundaries where various kinds of historical enquiry (architectural, archeological, legal, anthropological, institutional etc.) rub against one another and against the claims of posterity.

So heritage research tends to focus not on one set of disciplinary issues but rather on the complex ways in which value gets shaped by community consensus and institutional structures.

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The Old Mill and cottage, South Perth (1835-36)

These structures include museums and sites that achieve public recognition, notably through non-governmental organisations such as ICOMOS or the National Trust and through government agencies such as the WA Heritage Council with their mechanisms for registering, interpreting and protecting historically significant places.

The study of heritage reads time through place. Much of its access to the past is mediated through historic sites, memorial edifices, galleries, parks – and most typically through museums. The museum is to Heritage Studies what the laboratory is to Chemistry and the design studio is to Architecture. Research into heritage matters has immense interdisciplinary potential, because ‘the museum’ is not actually a singular category: museums cover many fields from sciences to sports, from arts to industries, from medicine to migration, from childhood to folklore, from mining to maritime activity, and so on.

2. A capacity to be socially useful through application to material needs.
The study of heritage lends itself to practical civic applications, being oriented towards community needs and the solution of pressing contemporary social problems. Graduates in this field can be equipped to participate in the complex processes of heritage policy, management and revaluation – processes that have become the public face of history. Heritage adresses situations that bristle with social, economic and political tension.

  • Should this half-derelict building be pulled down?
  • Is that once-handsome precinct being spoiled by property developers?
  • Are those traditional practices offensive?
  • Do your people have a right to be included in our ceremony or mentioned in our memorial inscription?
  • Whose beliefs are being celebrated in this local festival?
  • Are cultural tourists welcome here?
  • Should this gallery artefact, questionable in provenance, be returned to its country of origin?

Advanced coursework in Heritage Studies can promote informed debate and better appreciation of many such questions about social values – what’s worth keeping, and why, and by whom and for whom. It can also lead directly to a range of employment areas from curatorial work to tourism.

3. A capacity to enhance cultural awareness through the creative arts.
A major focus of Heritage Studies is on collection-based institutions like galleries and museums, and one of its core disciplines is museology, which deals with the preservation, presentation and interpretation of cultural artefacts.

But heritage is not the captive of high culture; its scope includes a range of folk art, and some forms of creative practice that few pundits would consider aesthetically prepossessing. It can’t accord privilege to one domain of creative artistry or to one kind of cultural institution. Its way of enhancing cultural awareness is to insist that what counts as creative artistry is relative to the particulars of time, place and function, and yet critical judgment about its continuing value is unavoidable.

4. A capacity to reflect on its own intellectual foundations and discursive practices.
Heritage is constituted to a large extent by the ways in which it is publicly talked about and by various written texts – an array of laws and charters, policies, professional documents, official publications, media reports, advertisements, petitions etc. These texts do much to determine what counts as an object of legitimate public attention or cherished significance, and to constrain the interpretation and evaluation of it. To invoke heritage is to contemplate the everyday practical ways in which a relationship between past and present values of a community needs to be negotiated through public discussion.

For example, public museums emerged during the 19th century in ways often linked with acquisitive imperial impulses – so do they remain compromised by their historical link to colonialist assumptions about civilisation, about cultural otherness as a field for collectors and exhibitors?

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18th-century stone wall panel, Rajistan, imported by a Sydney antiques dealer

Posing such questions makes it necessary to investigate how certain material objects change hands across continents through the trade in fragments of monuments, statues, tomb furnishings and other antiquities derived from poorer areas of the world and transferred to collections in wealthier countries. The National Gallery of Australia has recently come under critical scrutiny because of doubts about the acquisition process for certain statues in its Asian art collection – and there many other examples of imported heritage items for which the ownership rights may be dubious.

Heritage Studies must engage with these internationally sensitive matters, drawing on anthropological and legal perspectives to explore topics such as contested spoils of war, looting, auctions and repatriation of purloined objects, as well as the roles of the academy and worldwide public opinion in shaping what counts as heritage value.

So there’s certainly an important place for advanced-level Heritage Studies in a university with strong research capabilities. I hope the new UWA course will receive an enthusiastic response.

2 thoughts on “One person’s heritage is another’s can of worms

  1. This is certainly a strong endorsement of UWA’s new course and points to important ingredients that need to be incorporated in its units of study. As well as the wealth of institutions that are the custodians and expressions of cultural heritage, which are enumerated here, it seems to me that consideration of the relationship between history and heritage is a fruitful topic to pursue. In the past I think historians have sometimes seen heritage as almost a commodified application of history – as something that serves purposes that are sometimes political, less objective and value-ridden. As heritage has become more the subject of debate and study, these attitudes are becoming out of date, but just as one may ask “whose history” of an historical text, one may also ask in whose interests heritage objects and edifices chosen for public preservation, study, display or installation are chosen. Heritage can be usefully subjected to similar analysis as historical research and writing.

  2. Thank you for these sage reflections, Brian. What you say reinforces the point that ‘heritage’ is a rich and complex field of study, not least because of the need to analyse its relationship (sometimes uneasy) with the academic discipline of history.

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