Books: Present tensions in a perfect past

Heritage is now a matter of life and death. Patrick Wright reports on the future of cultural conservation

The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History by David Lowenthal, Viking, pounds 25

The tweed jacket can still be seen, symbolically draped around the bicycling figure of Dan Cruikshank, Georgian hero of BBC2's One Foot in the Past. But the transformations of the last 20 years are no less startling for that. "Heritage" was once a defensive impulse that cherished its objects against modernisation. Now it is a development strategy, even an engine of regeneration. Formerly the preserve of academics and hobbyists, it is now an industry aligned with tourism and described as a fit replacement for shipbuilding and mining. It may only have been to avoid having a French- sounding Ministry of Culture that we now have a National Heritage department, but the name confirms how far this theme has been marched from the cultural margins.

David Lowenthal has had an eye on these developments for some time now. When he started his survey he was a distinguished Professor of Geography. Now he is the free-ranging master of Heritage Studies, a hybrid discipline, which mostly seems to consist of a bit of history hedged in by practical modules on tourism, marketing and business planning. But Lowenthal has a wider vision.He can be seen at international conferences, still alert and on his feet when everyone else has glazed over - defeated by the endless mission statements that delegates at these events feel obliged to recite, and reduced to idly reckoning up their expenses.

Others may try to come to terms with the rise of heritage in their own society alone, but such confinement is not for Lowenthal. An American, he travels far and wide in search of heritage flora and fauna. He then disappears into his study in Harrow to embark on the arduous search for a unifying pattern in the uprooted and bizarre data that pours and spills across his pages. At low moments, Lowenthal must feel hopelessly overwhelmed. As examples pile up, every possible conclusion seems to be overtaken by its contrary. Repeatedly, the idea of "heritage" threatens to explode. If Lowenthal were a computer, he'd have signs flashing saying more megabytes required.

But he has managed to coax an extraordinary inventory of heritage pathology into a coherent, lucid argument. His case is that since 1980 or so, heritage has become a global phenomenon. It may remain predominantly western, but everywhere, the same factors provoke it - the pace of change, massive migration, centralisation, increased longevity.

Lowenthal begins by differentiating heritage material from disciplined history. Historians like J H Plumb have argued that true historical knowledge is superior and should be used to dissolve heritage-like fantasies about the past believed by the untutored masses. Others, like Raphael Samuel, have argued the reverse: that historians should be prepared to learn from popular heritage enthusiasts.

Lowenthal is inclined to turn his back on all this. He declares that heritage is not the same as history and, moreover, that it shouldn't even try to be. The two serve quite different needs: "I acquit heritage of historian's charges not because heritage is guiltless of deforming history, but because its function is to do just that". Heritage is a testament of faith in the past, in which "credulous allegiance" counts over pursuit of objective truth. As catechism rather than fact, heritage invents memories and excludes inconvenient realities. It creates a "secret identity" ("us") and promotes false knowledge - the only kind, so Lowenthal asserts, that can serve as "a gauge of exclusion" for "them". This is murky stuff, and yet Lowenthal suggests it could hardly be any other way. "Forgetting what displeases us is not only normal but necessary" and "to sanitise a seamy past may aid understanding more than laying it bare'".

History may still be written by the victors, but heritage seems to belong to the victims. Centralised conceptions of heritage were created as part of the nationalism of 19th century Europe, and a stately idea of heritage is still invoked as the stuff of "national consensus". But a different assertion of heritage has emerged - one in which "minority virtue" is lined up against mainstream ideas of progress. In this rootsy variation, heritage is the rallying cry of those who feel disaffected by the megapowers.

Such is its romantic appeal, that comfortable members of the majority culture are inclined to crave the "local loyalty and ethnic empathy" of victimhood. To be merely American, French, or English is to be deprived. Lowenthal quotes a Parisian teacher who, because she can't speak Gallo or Breton, laments that "I have no language and no culture". In America, he finds a Caucasian youth having a conversation with a loinclothed Indian - regretting the English colonists who wrecked the Indian economy, but then turning to blame the French, who "really did us in". "We have all become Indians", says Lowenthal drily - without expressing too much sympathy for the Cherokee sweat-lodge therapist who had to lower the temperature of her facility in Britain, despite "a lot of soul-searching about changing the tradition".

This conversion of aboriginal culture into heritage is a decidedly mixed blessing. It is inclined to freeze these cultures, conserving the "primitive" qualities that were previously viewed with contempt. Yet Lowenthal is most concerned about the nativist ideas that are sustained under the name of heritage. Over the same years that apartheid has been proscribed and social distinctions based on race weakened, Lowenthal detects an intensification of the view that heritage is innate. Nazism may have discredited the racial science of eugenics, but in many expressions Heritage seems to be more and more biologically fixed, and therefore less amenable to social and cultural reform.

The determinism once associated with the blood may now be expressed in terms of genes, but the potentially toxic preoccupation with purity remains. Minority heritage may be closely connected with the idea of innate traits. But so is the Englishness of Enoch Powell, who remarked in 1995 that "racism is the basis of nationality", or of Lord Denning, who censured Leon Brittan (born and bred in Britain of Lithuanian parentage), as a "German Jew" who would apparently surrender British sovereignty . The pattern even extends into the vegetable domain. Lowenthal finds ecofascists preaching the creed of "native good, alien bad" and even English Heritage boasting of the native grass seeds with which it is "protecting ancient genetic lineage."

Lowenthal recognises conservation and questions of identity as legitimate global issues. A self-described "heritage activist", he recognises that the idea is inclined to fuel conflicts and rivalry. Sarajevo's library and the ancient bridge at Mostar were targeted as heritage sites, and the defence of monuments is also too often wrapped up in "bellicose xenophobia". If there is hope for the future, it lies partly in a rising sense of global heritage, albeit one born of European conquest. And also in the fact that, once the thoroughbred fantasies of super patriotism are set aside, most people can claim multiple legacies.

This is a revealing and useful book, especially valuable for its international reach. And yet the rather helpless sense of quandary on which it closes may partly be a product of the global perspective that prevents Lowenthal from really digging in anywhere. Touch the ground for a little longer at any place where heritage is at issue, and other dimensions open up, connected not just with "history" but with local culture and politics. It is also likely that the vexed relationship between heritage and "true" historical knowledge will survive the curt dismissal at the end. Lowenthal is overcritical of the "heritage-mongers" (such as curators) who try to reconcile their marketing strategies with a commitment to truth, or to use history to cleanse their monuments of xenophobia. It is extreme to dismiss the very attempt as "hugely counterproductive", and only likely to bring the idea of science, history and also heritage into disrepute.

Having surveyed the morbid possibilities of heritage, Lowenthal may have discovered a sympathy with the idea of turning it into such a cliche that it will never stir deep passions again. But even that is unlikely. The current issue of Harpers has excerpts from a web site dedicated to overthrowing Disney president Paul Pressler. He is accused of turning the theme park's Penny Arcade into a stuffed animal shop, and generally destroying "Disneyland as we know it".

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tv Review: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series began tonight with a feature-length special
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee