Having spent a big chunk of my adult life trying to help look after bits of it, I’ve developed a strong dislike, bordering on contempt, for the word ‘heritage’. Why, I wonder? Etymologically it’s an innocent enough word – something inherited, passed on from one individual or community or age to another. So what’s so appalling about the term?
Politically it’s a term of special attraction to the Tories. A Conservative government passed the National Heritage Act in 1980, the measure that set up the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Another administration invented the Department of National Heritage in 1992 to replace the previous departments of arts and sport. Tories have always been suspicious of culture – the concept as well as the word – and their use of ‘heritage’ was a not very subtle attempt to restrict the cultural and artistic activities the state might be prepared to support to a narrow range of the ones they approved of. This mirrored the temptation their politicians always seemed to feel to reduce the school history curriculum to hymning the glorious exploits of English royals and national heroes.
Political appropriation of the word ‘heritage’, though, may have started in the United States. In 1973 the right-wing Heritage Foundation was founded to promote ‘traditional American values’, as a conservative reaction to the so-called liberal consensus. These days it publishes something called the Index of US military strength, which I suppose could be regarded as an attempt to measure one undeniably important aspect of American heritage. Perhaps the object that comes most immediately to mind when thinking about American ‘heritage’ in general is the Confederate flag, a hated reminder (to most, but not all) of an age of inequality and violence.
The Department of National Heritage disappeared in 1997, but the English still have to put up with the H word in the title of the body responsible for their historic buildings, English Heritage, another Tory coinage (1983). Fortunately we in Wales have avoided the same mistake: Cadw, our equivalent, is a mercifully simple and unloaded word.
Things got worse with the arrival of another Conservative invention, the Heritage Lottery Fund, set up in 1993. The HLF was a highly successful device to slough off a large part of the state’s responsibility for maintaining and developing the buildings and collections belonging to our public art, museum and archive institutions. It soon armed itself with self-importance, a labyrinthine bureaucracy, and an unfriendliness that only the most determined and best-endowed petitioners could break down. Biases grew up and became entrenched. Most of the HLF’s grant money ended up in London and the south east of England. Three-dimensional ‘heritage’ – buildings and monuments, art and museum objects – was privileged at the expense of documentary and intangible culture. I spent years trying to persuade the HLF’s panjandrums that they should support digital, online methods of unlocking documentary history for the public – to zero effect. (The Big Lottery Fund, by contrast, seems to have developed a rather different internal culture, and was far more open and inclusive in its dealings with the public.)
Another unfortunate feature of ‘heritage’ is that it is too open to be wrapped up and sold as a commercial commodity. The ‘heritage industry’, a term apparently invented by the cultural historian Robert Hewison in the 1980s, can easily infect attitudes to what we hold publicly in common. The vast heap that is history is reduced to a small, carefully selected package and offered to tourists, children, business people and anyone else its owners wish to influence. Patrick Wright, in an essay called ‘Trafficking in history’ in his book On living in an old country (1985), wrote
National Heritage involves the extraction of history – of the idea of historical significance and potential – from a denigrated everyday life and its restaging or display in certain sanctioned sites, events, images and conceptions’ … Abstracted and redeployed, history seems to be purged of political tension; it becomes a unifying spectacle, the settling of all disputes.
It was in just these contexts that Ken Skates AM, the Welsh government Minister responsible for culture, recently dreamed up a neo-conservative scheme, denounced by almost everyone but still alive, to break off parts of the National Museum, National Library and other public bodies and stuff them into a new entity called Historic Wales, which will be responsible for selling culture and making money. (He clearly missed a trick by failing to hit on the name ‘Heritage Wales’.)
There’s another objection to ‘heritage’. To go back to the origin of the word, there’s something inherently doubtful about the ‘passing down’ of history, even if the passing down is done without specific intention. Those responsible, whether historians, the media or museum curators, generally bring unconscious assumptions to the process of selecting what to transmit. The current BBC television series presented by David Olusaga, Black and British: a forgotten history, shows vividly how hard it is to uncover the presence and activity of black people in Britain down the centuries, from Roman times to the present, in the absence of a tradition, until very recently, of recording and celebrating them in the historical record.
Heritage, then, seems to encapsulate everything that is dubious about certain attitudes to preserving and using the cultures of our past – a narrow and reactionary definition of what we, collectively, should support; a tendency to commodify that denies the open-ended, undefined and collectively-owned nature of inherited culture; and a discriminatory selectivity, whether conscious or unconscious, in what is chosen to be ‘passed down’.
This week, thanks to that excellent television programme The One Show, I heard for the first time about a recent revival of ‘heritage’, this time not by the government but by the Royal Society of Arts. The RSA have developed, in all seriousness, a National Heritage Index. This is a league table of counties in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It ranks them according to their cultural ‘richness’. At the bottom of the England list, it seems, is Luton. The One Show sent a reporter to the town to present the ‘finding’ to some of its unfortunate residents. Not surprisingly they were indignant, and were quick to point out several examples of local cultural richness, include the fruits of ethnic diversity. When you turn to the list itself it doesn’t take long to smell a rat. The ‘top’ county is the City of London, followed by Kensington and Chelsea, and in third place Westminster. These are no doubt the richest areas in the UK monetarily, but it would be very hard to argue that they were culturally supreme. Whenever I wander round the windy, arid streets of the City of London I find pretty difficult to track down any living culture other than making money out of money. The list of Welsh counties makes even less sense: Gwynedd takes the gold for some reason, while Swansea fails to get into the top ten.
The heritage data the RSA has used to build the Index are a mad mishmash of over 100 indicators: built heritage assets, nature reserves, heritage activities, like volunteering, numbers of blue plaques, and local foods with protected naming status. Some of these are clearly affected by political or status considerations. Fortunately the RSA fatally undermines the worth of the whole project by seeming to endorse the common view expressed at a seminar it arranged to discuss its work, that ‘heritage is what people choose to make it’ – an unexceptional but broad definition that pulls the rug from under the huge edifice of the Index.
So, ‘heritage’ is either a tainted concept of doubtful worth or an idea empty of meaning and impossible to translate into action. Maybe we should just give the word a rest, for a couple of decades or more?