Some years ago I read the US American National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (amended 2000). In it, it states that ‘the historical and cultural foundations of the Nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people’ (my emphasis).
Since my return to Germany, I have often thought of this idea, that heritage can and should provide people with orientation. It is a much simpler concept than those that have been adopted in most European and international policies: cultural understanding, identity, social cohesion, personal development, sense of place or sense of belonging. All of these concepts are valid, and yet in my experience of arrival in Germany, ‘orientation’ was my most immediate need, and how I began to refer to it.
This is a personal first, however. Despite having been a new arrival in several different countries and regions before, in these circumstances to date, heritage first and foremost has always been a source of information for me. I went to heritage sites and museums to learn more about this new society I was now a part of.
Heritage is often theorized in this way in the context of migration. A recent paper by Laia Colomer  suggests that global nomads use local or national heritage as part of a cultural first-aid kit (my words) to support their integration. They assemble these heritages into cultural capital that helps them transition between cultures. These heritages also collectively form the backdrop against which global nomads experience and define their global identity.
One might argue that orientation does play a role here, though. What I like about ‘orientation’ as a concept is this sense of mapping the world around you in relation to your own position within it. It suggests place and an awareness of this place and others in it. It implies making connections, between your existing knowledge and what is new, between yourself, others and place. It is a term of arrival and need, a process that may be activated when necessary.
There is an emotional dimension to orientation too, at the contact points to belonging, identity and cohesion. Orientation is about touching the soul of a place and a people. It is a process of empathy, of entering into the mind of the other. It is about finding that which is universally human and thus shared between this new place, its people, and us as individuals. Orientation is fundamentally about story: that which captures our imagination, which we can connect to, make our own, reuse or reinvent to fit around who we are.
To think of ‘orientation’ in heritage management and also interpretation may give us a different perspective. When understood as a dynamic physical and emotional process, as I’ve described above, it can help us provide (negotiation) space, especially for new arrivals like refugees and migrants, but also the native population. Orientation is a transitory phase, which in itself implies change: change that also needs to be allowed for in management and interpretation. Orientation also acknowledges a deeply felt need we all have at certain points in our lives. This can be a rather existential crisis, and ‘orientation’ as our guiding term recognises the meaning and use heritage has in people’s lives. In some ways, ‘orientation’ thus brings us full circle: it is a classic concept, a traditional concept, yet with a newly added layer of change in a globalised world .
 Colomer, L. 2017. ‘Heritage on the move. Cross-cultural heritage as a response to globalisation, mobilities and multiple migrations’. International Journal of Heritage Studies 23 (10), pp. 913 – 927
 There are very many pitfalls and issues here too, that I want to concede and briefly touch on. Orientation, if understood as a one-way lesson on ‘what things are like here’ cannot work. Thus my emphasis on the dynamic interplay between the person and place/others. I also wrote of the emotional element of orientation. The challenge is the sometimes very real danger that such emotion will be misappropriated and misused, particularly in a nationalistic way. This would be something to explore further, for based on my own experience with sites of very high nationalistic potential, I think it is not at all an automatic outcome of making visible and accessible an emotion – but it is a danger, and an unease that many of us feel
2 thoughts on “Heritage as Orientation”
intriguing, really rings a bell, captures a complex concept with beautiful simplicity. first thoughts: orientation as an iterative process; (re)-orientation and synergies between cultures and heritages of global nomads, refugees, migrants, native populations …
Thank you, Nicole, that you share your thoughts. I think, it is so important to discuss the terms of interpreting cultural heritage. And you are right: there must be another goal than only impart knowledge.
I send you best wishes from the Rhineland.