On a dreary day in October I took the overground to West London to meet the historian Robert Hewison. He had generously agreed to be interviewed by me and had invited me to his comfortable home overlooking a local park. Hewison, born in 1943 and educated in Oxford worked for many years as theatre critic for the Sunday Times. He is also an expert on Ruskin and a freelance historian with a four volume cultural history of Britain since the interwar period under his belt. However, he is perhaps best-known for his book The Heritage Industry, which came out in 1987. Three decades on, it still feels very contemporary.
The trigger for the book was the steep growth in the number of museums, which, for Hewison, pointed to “the imaginative death of this country” (9). In his eyes the growing interest in — or even obsession with — the past was down to nostalgia, “a sickness that has reached fever point” (10) and that had become “a dominant characteristic”. (28) The heritage industry played up to the nostalgic mood by selling a cosy, neutered version of the national past to a public graving stability and harmony. By making “the present conform to the image of the past that we have created” it produced “bogus history” (143-4).
For all its polemic, Hewison’s take on nostalgia was not unambiguous. For instance, he conceded that nostalgia “can have an integrative effect by helping us to adjust to change” (10). In the meantime, his position has become even more ambivalent. Though Hewison stands by his original analysis, he admits that the heritage industry has at least partly improved since his book came out and he hopes that the criticism he, Patrick Wright, David Lowenthal and others voiced, has contributed to this improvement.
Since the “heritage panic” of the 1980s, the terms heritage and heritage industry have lost a lot of their negative and polemical undertone. They are common currency now. This makes it even harder to define what they actually mean. The term heritage
is applied to buildings and sites but also to nature and culture. Best-known are the World Heritage Sites listed by the UNESCO. Generally we think of heritage as something positive, something worthy to be saved from the erosion of time. Many university offer program
s in “heritage studies”, “heritage management” and so on. In The Rise of Heritage the historian Astrid Swenson traces this understanding of heritage back tothe late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when the first museums were founded and the conservation movement began.
Yet, there are many who are still critical of the heritage concept. In her book From Antiquities to Heritage, the historian Anne Eriksen investigates how attitudes towards the past have changed since the eighteenth century. Whereas Swenson stresses continuity, Eriksen highlights discontinuity and differences. For her, the heritage concept is not rooted in earlier approaches to the past, rather it is a “distinctly contemporary concept” (6). “[A]nchored in the present of the inheritors, not in the past of the inherited objects” (149) heritage cares less about the past than about its use for the present.
Though Eriksen’s criticism of the heritage concept is reminiscent of Hewison’s book, The Heritage Industry does not feature in her analysis. Instead she builds on the work of the French historian François Hartog, whose book Régimes d’historicité (2003) — it came out in English last year as Regimes of historicity — features a chapter on “Heritage and the Present”. Eriksen and Hartog explain the rise of the heritage concept by how the understanding and perception of time has changed, by what Hartog has termed the “presentist” regime of historicity. In many respects, however, they come to similar conclusions as Hewison thirty years ago. As this shows, the discussion of what the past means for the present and how the present relates to it, is very much rooted in 1970s and 80s, often unconsciously building on arguments first developed in that era.
Hartog’s criticism of the heritage concept can be accessed online for free.
For my review of The Rise of Heritage and From Antiquities to Heritage see the October issue of the American Historical Review.