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
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
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".