Book Review / Package tourists visit the past

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The Independent Culture
There is a cartoon quoted in this book showing a Yorkshire father talking to a sulking son: "You'll work down at t'heritage museum, like your mother and me." David Lowenthal, a Professor of Heritage Studies at the University of London, sees the joke, but sets out to explore the serious issues behind it. "All at once," he writes, "heritage is everywhere - in the news, in the movies, in the marketplace ... From ethnic roots to history theme-parks, Hollywood to the Holocaust, the whole world is busy lauding - or lamenting - some past, be it fact or fiction." The Heritage Crusade tries to look a little deeper into our preoccupation with the past, and the issues it raises.

It would be good to say more than this - to offer some account of the argument that Lowenthal makes. Argument, though, is not Lowenthal's strength. Instead, he likes examples. His method is to take a subject and bury it with illustrations. You can almost touch the card index and cutting file beneath the writing. For every six pages of text, there is more than a page of notes. But jackdaws have their qualities: if Lowenthal does not offer much by way of a critical perspective on the heritage phenomenon, he convinces you by sheer bulk of example that predecessor preoccupation is now a powerful political force. And his illustrations are often funny and telling.

As he sees it, the best way of appreciating what is distinctive about the heritage crusade is to contrast it with the study of history. Historians see their enterprise as an international one, and welcome foreign contributions; they take pride in the rigour of their methods; they attach a special weight to written records; and if they sometimes employ narrative, they also pursue statistical and comparative approaches. Above all, they aspire to hard objective truth: "Our Waterloo," Lord Acton exhorted "must be one that satisfies French and English, Germans and Dutch alike."

The purveyors of heritage, on the other hand, are narrow and selective in their interests, jealous in their approach to their subject, often prefer images, objects, buildings and re-enactments to the written word, and tend to adapt their version of the past to the present needs of the group to which they belong. "It is our culture and history," says an Indian tribal spokesman, "and we do not have to prove [it] by footnoting." Heritage highlights those aspects of the past that now appear admirable, and expunges the shameful. Australian aborigines are proto-ecologists; American Indians proto-feminists. Israel continues to deploy Masada as a prime symbol of national identity, even though all the evidence totally discredits the myth of first-century mass suicide. History is found, heritage forged. History is an investigation of the past, heritage a declaration of faith in a simplified version of it. "Viewed as history the past is a foreign country;" writes Lowenthal, "viewed as heritage it is highly familiar."

In pre-modern societies a devotion to heritage was the preserve of aristocrats and rulers. Indeed in their interest in origins, longevity and inherited characteristics; their attachment to precedence, antiquity and purity, their idealisation of heroism and sacrifice, stewardship and responsibility, the aristocrats of the Ancient Regime should properly be seen, or so Lowenthal suggests, as the forerunners of contemporary heritage-mongers.

Today, of course, the National Trust, English Heritage and the like encourage us to feel that what the elite once thought of as their heritage now belongs to us - "the noblest nationalisation" as the Times once described it. But things have changed in other ways, too. Nowadays it is not only aristocrats but commoners who draw up family trees, and we are as likely to take pride in the fact that we do not have blue blood as that we do. More significant still, an aristocratic preoccupation with family heritage has given way to a generalised preoccupation with the past of the larger communities to which we belong.

As Lowenthal documents, we have in fact seen a remarkable proliferation of collective identities, each with its own fabulous history. Nations still fabricate their distinctive stories: the Greeks, the French, the British and the Americans all lay claim to being the first democratic nation. But if the nation remains an important source of imagined community, there is not a single region or race, creed or ethnicity, town or valley, trade or profession, hobby or interest, that has not furnished itself with a heritage: pop music, football, space exploration, folk dance, medicine and modern architecture, each lies claim to an "experience", and sights and artefacts to go with it. And, Lowenthal notes, along with the spawning of oppositional cultures, we have seen the emergence of new oppositional legacies - heritage crusades are as likely to find their holy grail in defeat as in victory: Maori numbers have doubled in a generation, mainly because New Zealanders who formerly played down their ancestry now flaunt it, and the descendants of American slaves take pride in their triumphs but also in their suffering.

Lowenthal sees no point in trying to arrest these trends, which he considers, anyway, not necessarily regrettable: heritage "links us with ancestors and offspring, bonds neighbours and patriots, certifies identity, roots us in time-honoured ways...". His illustrations, however, tend to underscore the less attractive traits of the quest for a comforting heritage: its tendency to debase, commercialise and distort the past, or worse still, to degenerate into a violent tribalism.