Monday, 22 August 2011

What is Heritage?

One of the first readings for one of my history subjects at University this semester was Graeme Davison’s “A Heritage Handbook”, pages 1-13. The chapter is entitled ‘The Meanings of ‘Heritage’’ and I found it filled its implied function rather well. Its focus is mostly on the modern Australian interpretation of the word as of its publication date – 1991 – and as such, suffers a certain Eurocentrism. That kind of thinking was much more prevalent back then – I was five years old at that time…twenty years is rather a long time. Much has changed, and so this narrowed and harrowed aspect of the focus in the article should be noted.
After this I noticed this article was chock full of unnecessarily pedantic hair splitting. At least to my raw senses it appeared so. About once a paragraph I felt a small bucket of rage inside me get rattled. It didn’t spill or explode, though – because I drew something awesome from it.
Plug the idea of heritage into the empathic model of the human narrative (championed by Jeremy Rifkin, as first, in my mind, among others), and what do you get? Empathy is the core driver of this narrative, and all of macrohistory’s big ideas weave into it. Humankind is transcending all the previous boundaries to communicating and empathising with one another. What about if we saw heritage, then, as empathy across not only tribal (local), religious (regional), nation-states (national), but even *temporal* borders? Heritage is an expression of globalised empathy, that transcends the temporal border, allowing us to empathise with our ancestors in a way that brings me a mental image of the hand of heritage to reach out and hold the hand of history as they walk off together into the sunset. Or is it the sunrise? J
So that’s a great idea. But it leads us straight back to the question “What IS heritage?”
The closest stab we can take at an answer is that it is an attempt to achieve an accurate representation, appreciation, and understanding of the cultural, traditional, and spiritual people, places, events and things that have shaped who we are today.
The operative word, there, is ‘accurate.’ The buildings that look clean and cool – er, I mean, are aesthetically and / or architecturally appealing – and the places where things happened in the light of day – ie. The things about ourselves that we are absolutely desperate to convince everybody around us that this is what we are. So my question is, why aren’t the brothels, the bars, the houses of drink and the houses of worship, ever on the heritage lists? Because I tell you, dear sojourner, that you will learn more about what it is that defines who we are than you will anywhere else.
Why do people, even the leaders of our politics, culture, science, emotion and thought, work so bloody hard to perpetuate all the farces about ourselves and each other?


  1. Very thoughtful post. People do work very hard at convincing other people that they're different than what they truly are.

  2. very well-written! can't wait to hear more.
    also, the reason we often try to display glorified versions of ourselves is a version of social desirability bias, which makes people say what they think others want to hear rather than the truth. unfortunately, it might actually have made its way into our cultural way of thinking alongside the need for recognition and appraisal.