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The Meaning of Heritage - some personal thoughts

Reflections from Richard Bolt - KJO Łódź

When Heritage was first put forward as the theme for the summer school it immediately ‘chose itself’ - appealing, inclusive, international and ideally suited to its location in Puławy. It also lent itself very successfully to intercultural approaches to FLT and to the aims of the BC Poland Culture in ELT project.

When I started thinking about the term I soon discovered I’d rather taken its meaning for granted and on further thought it revealed itself a very rich concept. This essay attempts to bring together a collection of ideas to provide some background, stimulate your thinking and to which you can add your own thoughts. It is only with these thoughts that the essay is completed, as heritage is above all something which is felt and that can only be individual. The intention is to raise questions not give answers.

Heritage and language

English has become the international language and international medium of heritage (as it has of sport, fashion, music and so on). Often (but not only) it is presented in a national framework though with accessibility to international audiences. As this is usually via English it places a particular responsibility on the language to be able to deliver ‘meaning’ as well as ‘facts’. Does English ‘westernise’ heritage, globalise it or take it away from those whose heritage / inheritance it is? Can English be used to effectively interpret and relate heritages, or even mediate when necessary?

My own awareness of the issue was raised in Poland where I discovered that even an excellently translated leaflet on an aspect of heritage has often meant very little because of its assumed knowledge, attitudes and values. Some heritage items (like the Leonardo painting in Krakow) are instantly internationally recognisable - others (like the commemorative mounds in the same city) are not. Presumably the same ‘taking for granted’ is true of heritage sites in the UK.

The English language (despite all the cultural baggage it brings with it - e.g. the limited vocabulary available) however is a particularly useful common ground therefore for discussion of heritage, as every aspect needs to be expressed through it. Real communicative outcomes are possible for the activities we produce - not just entertaining exercises as the representation of heritage through English is of some importance.

Equally the English used in such leaflets usually referred implicitly to an audience from the UK (or occasionally the US) - yet the majority of those reading such leaflets would be using English as a lingua franca. ‘Native proficiency’ or ‘native invisibility’ as values are therefore of little consequence raising the further language issue of what kind and level of English should be used. It is not about translation perhaps but of writing based on a Polish (or other) text with such an international audience in mind.

The main language issues are:
  • How can English be successfully used as the international medium of heritage?
  • How to be aware of the shared values and attitudes, let alone knowledge, which Polish (or any other language) takes for granted?
  • How to use English in a way that successfully communicates to an audience who could come from any culture in the world, and at any level of English?
Together these provide a strong argument for intercultural awareness and skills in FLT.

Heritage as a term

Though it seems to represent what is ‘dead’, heritage is very much a living idea - it is about the present and the future as much as the past. An object (for its own value e.g. a work of art - or for what it represents e.g. a ruined castle) or an activity (a craft skill e.g. weaving - or some element of folklore e.g. a dance) can be considered today ‘heritage’. Heritage has become both affective (it is felt - ‘experienced’ as so many UK heritage sites put it) and moral (what ought to be felt - and therefore part of national education programmes). The term ‘heritage’ is as interesting as what it represents.

But as a term representing both what should be valued and conserved publicly from the past, and as an attitude of respect to it, seems to be a late 20th C development. Many contemporary UK dictionaries (including the current edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary) give no prominence to this meaning or sometimes do not even record it. Usually only family level (or religious) senses closer to ‘inheritance’ or ‘legacy’ are given. The idea obviously existed before - but not this meaning of the term. The idea obviously existed before - but not this meaning of the term.

This contemporary use has arisen it seems in response to changing attitudes to the past in the 20th C, and without doubt it is a ‘living’ term whose meaning is still developing - its definition is certainly not fixed yet. Heritage therefore as an attitude to the past is very much a product of our own historical period. As the world continues to change, both the concept itself and what it includes (and does not) will continue to shift too. For some ideas of the great range of meanings that heritage can encompass - see Kinds of heritage below.

Is this true in other languages? English separates heritage and inheritance, some other languages do not. When did the Polish dziedzictwo or spuścizna gain their contemporary range of meanings? The French patrimoine suggests further connotations. Dictionaries give me erbe (German) and retaggio (Italian) - what do these mean to users of those languages? What is considered heritage in English (and discussed here) may not be in your native language, and vice versa. The two Polish terms illustrate this issue very well.

Heritage and history

The past is our ‘inheritance’ or ‘legacy’ whether we like it or not. Is it our ‘heritage’ - or is heritage just selected, valued and respected bits of the past? Its immediate cultural root is perhaps tourism with heritage a ‘product’ for tourist consumption.

Heritage is such a strong term that it seems to have become popularly interchangeable with history itself. It suggests however some obligation on the part of the present to the past and also on behalf of the future, and that the past should give us in some way a lesson for the present and future.

Heritage suggests continuity, perhaps of ideals felt to be in decline, and usually suggests some fixity of form or practice. If you have a tradition of change is this heritage? Linked terms include such difficult cultural concepts as ‘tradition’ and ‘authenticity’.

Heritage (like tradition) is a way of ‘managing’ the past, managing history and (re)presenting it in the present. Heritage is in a sense not only a ‘reading’ of the past but a ‘writing’ of it - a way of establishing ‘history’ itself. This places considerable responsibility on the presentation and also offers great opportunities for manipulation of it for commercial ends (often simplistic and trivialising).

There is no statue of Francis Drake in Plymouth because of endless disagreement on how he should be presented - national hero/ pirate/ explorer/ adventurer/ proto-colonialist etc etc. Remember the conflicts over the celebrations of the ‘discovery’ of America by Columbus. Heritage can rarely be comfortably enclosed in national (or even European) perspectives.

Heritage contradictions

There are many contradictions. Ironically something often only becomes ‘heritage’ when it is in danger of being lost. Heritage suggests agreement about what is to be valued and what an object or activity means - whereas at the time of its creation and use there would certainly have been conflicts of opinion (e.g. in the factories on industrial heritage sites). Will the value today be the value in the future? Most of our ancestors were only to glad when ‘progress’ enabled them to escape what is now preserved as heritage.

‘Local living’ itself is increasingly becoming something from the past, generating campaigns which desperately try to impose an idea of ‘local community’ in an electronic and highly mobile age. This ‘local community’ of people with a common interest as a consequence of locality is an example of how heritage distorts history. In fact the past was rather a highly differentiated ‘local society’ of people with different and often conflicting interests. Heritage as an art of illusion. In a sense heritage is the epitome of inauthenticity in its attempts to mimic and stabilise the past.If it was authentic it would transform itself according to changing times or die out. What do you think? See Heritage issues below.

Heritage(s) - identity/ culture/ heritage

As our identities are defined by our gender, social class, occupation, generation, nationality etc - so we are all part of many cultures. Wherever we have cultures it seems we have heritages. All of us share the values of a European-wide educational culture (both in our training and occupationally), a heritage the EU emphasises via its Comenius and Socrates programmes for example. It’s easy to focus on small national differences and overlook the much greater international similarities. In some ways our educational identity/heritage/culture brings us closer to one another than to others in our own countries.

Heritage (as culture and identity) is multiple within each of us - perhaps this helps to explain our often ambivalent responses to objects designated as ‘heritage’ Heritage does not only mean different things to different people, but different things simultaneously within each one of us.

Heritage - positive/negative?

Does heritage have to be positive? This part of Europe has inherited some appalling events in the 20th C e.g. Katyń and Oświęcim/Auschwitz among many others. There are the lost heritages e.g. the descendants of slaves (a present people whose past heritage is somehow cut off) or the holocaust (a past heritage without a present people). Are we responsible for the past - do we have a corporate (or even individual) responsibility to/for it? There are recent examples of apologies by the pope for the past of the Catholic church or of the Australian government to the aborigines; the British government is notoriously slow in this e.g. with regard to Ireland or its role in the slave trade. All very difficult and sensitive areas and nobody comes away with ‘clean hands’.

In a smaller way my own part of England (the Westcountry) has a very ‘colourful’ and well-known past for piracy, smuggling and wrecking (see The Distracted Preacher a short story by Thomas Hardy) - hardly positive values to be celebrated yet the subject of museums and a commercially profitable image. To give further provocative examples - perhaps in the future there will be a museum to the smuggling of people into the EU or of the cocaine trail to Europe.

Heritage developments

Generally there is a trend to ‘democratising’ heritage to include all groups in society, not only the heritage of the presently ascendant group the heritage of the presently ascendant group but those on the margins of society (not only those powerful and wealthy enough in the past to have left their mark in the present, but also those who did not). Not only work of great quality is preserved now but also everyday items. All aspects of life, including many from popular culture are accepted as heritage - hence museums of sport, music, childhood etc. (search the About Britain website for many examples - link via Heritage Websites) Think of an aspect of life and very probably there will be a museum dedicated to it. Heritages are multiplying and proliferating. Heritage (like these museums) is increasingly seen to be something which should be set in context(s), and made alive and interactive if possible - a shared experience not an imposed value.

Kinds of heritage

This is a brief list of heritages. You might consider what the responses would be to these from different groups in society e.g. what would the teenagers in our classes especially value or consider to be heritage?

·         industrial/rural (socio-economic) e.g. skansens/working museums

·         popular e.g. music/ sport/ fashion

·         natural e.g. national parks - see Countryside edition of the webpages + day trip

·         city e.g. Kraków/Edinburgh

·         literary and other artistic heritages

·         religious e.g. Jewish - day trip

See Heritage Websites for other examples.

That heritage is perhaps above all a confident assertion of values and attitudes rather than the intrinsic nature of a historical object can be seen from the following:

·         contemporary (instant/ planned ...) heritage - as in sympathetic new building, mimicking the past, to create an atmosphere of what ‘ought to be’ in a city - given such high value all over Britain (yet only evolving after the crisis produced by the destruction of so many old buildings in the 60s)

·         future heritage - inbuilt preservation - the presumption of lasting value for future generations e.g. museums ordering works of art to be created

·         world heritage eg. Antarctica, the oceans or the UNESCO approach

·         Hubble heritage - the entire universe! (one of the major programmes undertaken by the Hubble telescope is called Heritage)

On first being asked people usually reach for national ideas of heritage - British this/ Polish that - but this soon breaks down. Natural heritage was there long before nations for example. Much Polish heritage exists in other countries. Whose is the heritage of works of art such as the Leonardo in Krakow? Does it have multiple heritages? The Elgin Marbles in the British Museum are, notoriously, defended as British heritage - hardly the view of the Greeks. Is Scottish heritage British? Should we talk of British heritage or of heritage (which happens to be) in Britain? And so on?

Heritage is increasingly accepted at levels other than the national, both locally and also globally e.g. via UNESCO (see Heritage Websites). Subnational heritages for example include many that are simultaneously trans-national, based on:

  • geographical contiguity (e.g. the Kurds)
  • religious groups (e.g. Muslims in Europe)
  • ethnic groups (e.g. Gypsies)

Heritage issues

The preservation of the past raises great debate and here are some of those issues presented only as questions as there is no space to develop them here:

  • Who owns heritage and/or its objects - whose heritage is it? Are individual countries as guardians of heritage for everyone?
  • Do we inherit heritage? - are we responsible for our past either positively or negatively?
  • · Do you take up the heritage of a country if you emigrate there?
  • What of anti-heritage attitudes - rejections of the past itself, or of accepted attitudes to it - sometimes found among teenagers?
  • How should public resources for heritage be allocated?
  • How should heritage be selected and represented (packaged in what narratives)?
  • What of false and disputed heritages - often depending on historical ‘facts’ (e.g. the issues raised by archaeology).
  • What should the role of sponsorship be in museums?
  • What should be restoration policy - a living debate in Italy - e.g. the Sistine chapel Last Judgement of Michelangelo
  • Can theme parks such as EuroDisney be heritage?
  • What is the role of heritage agencies e.g. Cultivate/ National Trust/ UNESCO (see Heritage websites)
  • What of the heritage audience - what meanings are we supposed to take away/ do we take away from heritage sites?
There are very many more and I’m sure you can immediately think of several.


As I sat writing this I was thinking ‘what are my heritages?’ Not those allocated to/ imposed on me because I come from the UK - but those I actually feel. Family and regional roots came first and most strongly, certainly before the national, but feelings are always ambivalent with frustration, disappointment and anger at what I’ve inherited as strong as feelings of pride and achievement. Sometimes I like being reminded - sometimes I don’t. What heritages do you feel a part of?

My house in England is let to tenants - the agency who deal with it are called - Heritage! Because they deal in old valuable buildings? No - they are decidedly downmarket - it’s just to give an impression of (undeserved) quality. This is an example of how the term runs the risk of being all things to all people - yet another irreproachable concept (in general) with very wide commercial use. Can anything and everything be ‘heritage’?

Perhaps heritage should be an attitude of respect and understanding to what each of us (and our students) carry within of the past and into the future. Perhaps this should be our underlying attitude - but heritages we share and that bring us together not those which divide. Heritage is about the future as much as the past, it is full of life and we must convey its living nature in our issue of the webpages. After all today’s world is tomorrow’s heritage!

Further reading

Heritage is discussed in many different books in cultural studies but usually among a number of other terms and themes of contemporary cultural value - so no one book can be given as an introduction. Of course it is found very widely in titles of popular leaflets and books where it is used uncritically to suggest something of high value. The following can be found in many of the British Studies resource points in British Council libraries.

Our book review Scotland: the brand is an example where you can find much discussion of what constitutes heritage.

Hobsbawm, E & Ranger, T, eds (1983) The Invention of Tradition CUP
Urry, J (1995) Consuming Places Routledge
Urry, J (1990) The Tourist Gaze Sage

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