…after all, it’s a heritage site, not a history site

I am preparing a research proposal at the moment, and part of my literature review reminds me of an experience I had late last year at a history conference.  At the time, I was doing another bit of research looking at what our processes are for interpreting significance.  At one of my case study sites an anecdote was reported to me, whereby a man stood up at a public consultation and asked: ‘Are you telling the story of our history or our heritage?’

Wow.  This was a member of the general public, and yet he’d put his finger right on the heart of the issue.  In academia, the theoretical discourse about ‘history vs heritage’ was most vibrant about twenty years ago.  It seems to have died down considerably, which it really shouldn’t have: we still have much to learn about what the difference means for our interpretive practice.  But in short, the debate could be summarised as: history is the scientific (and thus supposedly unemotional) collection of observable facts, while heritage is the (personal, but mostly communal) experience and recollection of events in all their psychological guises and to all possible purposes.

I tried to explain to one of the historians at the conference why I felt this comment was so relevant to how the site should be presented.  After all, this person was both a stakeholder and a potential user of the site in question.  I tried to explain why telling the historical facts wasn’t enough, that in fact to some degree they were actually irrelevant to the heritage.  In other words, I tried to share some insight into the dilemma every interpreter faces.

I failed miserably.  To the historian, there was no question: what, they asked, could you possibly tell BUT the historical facts?  And everything about their facial expression accused me of proposing to tell lies.  In their mind, heritage omission or re-evaluation of historical facts simply proves the irrationality of heritage and its consequent inferiority to history.

However, it’s not quite that simple either.  As many authors have pointed out, without that heritage value attached to a site or object, it becomes meaningless.  What is more, history itself is not a value-free science: it depends on the historian’s interpretation and understanding of the facts, which may change as more facts are discovered.

Sadly, however, too many exhibitions, presentations of sites and interpretive programmes are still governed by history.  But this can easily border on disenfranchisement of those whose heritage it is, and a blatant case of expert hegemony over the ‘ignorant public’ who needs to be ‘educated’.

So, am I proposing to tell lies?  Most certainly not.  I’m not even proposing to hide the historical fact that might shed a different light on what I call the heritage belief.  After all, in many cases there are different ‘heritage beliefs’ that are attached to one and the same site/object/tradition.  But what I do advocate is to give thorough consideration to the beliefs held by those who claim the site etc. as their heritage.  Even where conflicting claims exist, very often a sensitive representation of both beliefs is possible.

Note that I am writing beliefs – not the historical fact.  For the fact most likely is meaningless to all parties involved if it is presented without reference, or indeed without giving precedence to the heritage belief.  A presentation of historical facts alone has on numerous recent projects been used to present what was intended to be a ‘balanced’ view of a contentious site.  I have found that the result was predominantly a lifeless representation that failed to capture the site’s meaning for its stakeholders and quite importantly, that also failed to ‘educate’.  The stakeholders wouldn’t listen because they were offended by what they felt was a patronizing tone, and others could no longer understand what the fuss was all about.  To me, therein lies a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the interpreters: they are, after all, not interpreting a history site, but a heritage site.

Here is some further reading for starters:

Edson, G (2004) ‘Heritage: Pride or Passion, Product or Service?’ International Journal of Heritage Studies 10 (4), 333-348

Hewison, R. (1987) The Heritage Industry.  Britain in a climate of decline.  London: Methuen

Howard, P. (2003) Heritage: Management, Interpretation, Identity. London: Continuum

Lowenthal, D. (1998) The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

One thought on “…after all, it’s a heritage site, not a history site

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s