University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Heritage Themes

 

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The Elsecar Heritage Center in South Yorkshire, UK, is located in the former ironworks and colliery workshops of the Earl Fitzwilliam and was in operation from the late 18th to the mid 20th centuries.

 

Heritage Themes

As a basis for initiatives in international cooperation in heritage, the following themes have become particularly prominent. (Please note that this page is under construction.)

Community Memory
Diasporic Heritage
Heritage and Development
Heritage and the Environment
Heritage and Public History
Heritage and Social Action
Heritage and Technology
Heritage and Tourism
Heritage in Conflict
Indigenous Heritage
Intangible Heritage
Sites of Conscience

Community Memory, Social Memory, and Collective Memory

The term "collective memory" was introduced and theorized by a range of early twentieth century scholars including the writer, Hugo von Hofmannthal (1902); sociologist, Maurice Halbwachs (1925); historian, Marc Bloch (1925); art historian, Aby Warburg; and psychologist, Frederic Charles Bartlett (1932). While these writings inspired a few studies during the mid-twentieth century, it wasn't until the 1980s that the term was revived into fashion as a means to inquire how cultural knowledge connects people and practices across time and how the past is socially constructed within the present. Collective (or social or community) memory has been distinguished from individual memory, history, and false consciousness. Rather, collective memory theorists emphasize the necessity of a social context in which individuals remember, counter the objective claims of traditional historiography, and critique a strict reading of Marx's theories of social reproduction as unconscious, automatic, and "false." Thus, the term has grown popular among multiculturalists, postmodernists, and hegemony theorists as a way to analyze the politics of memory and critique the social consequences of the modernist notions of history, linear temporality, truth, and identity.

Historians of memory such as Frances Yates, Pierre Nora, and Andres Huyssen have helped establish the latest understanding of collective memory as a process with context-specific dynamics. Contemporary studies that focus on these dynamics typically identify the variables of identity, contestation, change, and continuity as central. These studies raise numerous questions for cultural heritage theorists: why and how do individuals and social groups invoke the past? In what ways are understandings and experiences of temporality changing or different across time and cultural groups? How can or should the past be represented in present media?

Related Resources
  • A comprehensive literature review can be found in Olick, Jeffrey K. and Joyce Robbins, "Social Memory Studies: From 'Collective Memory' to the Historical Sociology of Mnemonic Practices" Annual Review of Sociology (1998) 24:105-140.

Heritage in Conflict

Because heritage can mark inter-cultural differences and emphasize intra-cultural solidarity, heritage is often involved in, if not at the center, of social conflicts. Perhaps the most extreme case is heritage conflict in a war context. Although relatively recent international law (e.g. the Hague Convention) prohibits the destruction of certain cultural properties, such law is hardly a panacea for the complex realities of wartime and the myriad questions raised concerning the identification of protectable heritage, enforcement, interpretations of military necessity, and standards for adequate protection by attacking or occupying forces.

Unfortunately, conflict over heritage isn't limited to armed conflict, and conflicts often arise in contexts concerning all of the themes listed on this page and more (e.g. treatment of the dead, cultural property rights, etc.). In fact, conflict may be so pervasive as to prompt the philosophical question: is heritage necessarily conflictual? Does heritage always enable a confrontational stance among social groups? Or, can heritage be a means to engage in democratic debate and acknowledge the mutual similarities and differences among peoples - and if so, how?

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Indigenous Heritage

According to the UN, Indigenous peoples are "those...having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developled on their territories...They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop, and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples" (Martínez Cobo Study). On September 13, 2007, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, recognizing the collective and individual human rights of Indigenous peoples across the world. Numbering between 300-500 million and found in nearly every country, Indigenous cultures are diverse, yet share in a history of injustice due to colonialism and its associated policies, including slavery, assimilation, and genocide. Today, Indigenous peoples also share in a struggle for self-determination as distinct cultures and sovereign polities as well as for the protection of and rights to sacred places, homelands, cultural patrimony, traditional knowledge, oral histories, and human remains. Notable in the 2007 Declaration was the official adoption of the term "peoples" rather than "people," emphasizing the collective rights and inherent, distinct identities of Indigenous cultural groups - a distinction that sets Indigenous peoples apart from other "minority" groups in the realm of international law.

Although the Declaration is designed to protect Indigenous rights to self-determination, cultural property, equality in education and labor, language, and land and natural resources, it is technically a non-binding legal instrument that intends to leverage considerable normative weight in future legally binding international and domestic policies. Yet, defining who counts as Indigenous peoples and guaranteeing their rights are rife with difficulties. Many nation-states are reluctant to extend the rights outlined in the Declaration because of its perceived threat to the nation-state's own sovereignty. Moreover, the domestic policies of these nation-states often are the mainspring for the historical and contemporary threats against Indigenous peoples' human rights. Key to many heritage disputes is the standard of "continuity" or "authenticity" that gets applied to Indigenous cultural identity; that is, how much cultural change is "permissable" in order to still fulfill the criterion of "continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies?" Ironically and oftentimes tragically, the burden of proof, typically held by the Indigenous cultural group, becomes onerous because of the transformative effects of colonial policies aimed at severing this continuity. Additionally, "evidence" is often defined in Western terms, favoring written documents and replicable statistics, rather than oral testimonies of shared histories and traditions. How can heritage be theorized and managed in ways consistent with the UN Declaration, recognizing the rights of Indigenous peoples and responsive to the change and continuity evinced in their survival?

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Intangible Heritage

Heritage preservation policies traditionally targeted tangible cultural resources such as architecture and archaeological remains; however, during the late 20th century, international attention turned to the need to protect and respect intangible cultural heritage. On October 17, 2003, the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was adopted at the 32nd session of the General Conference. The Convention defined intangible cultural heritage, or living heritage, as "the mainspring of our cultural diversity" and encompasses the following domains: oral traditions and expressions including language; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship.

Intangible heritage embodies continuity and change: it is transmitted from generation to generation and provides a sense of identity across time, yet its transmission relies upon its constant re-creation in the present context. Thus, traditional preservation policies that rely upon standards of authenticity become problematic when applied to intangible heritage. Rather, such policies tend to emphasize "safeguarding" ("ensuring...viability") over "preserving" and focus attention on human beings as the "depository" for intangible heritage. For instance, UNESCO's Living Human Treasures program encourages states to officially recognize and support individuals who are exemplary bearers of intangible heritage such as traditional craftsman. Yet, intangible heritage remains threatened by globalization and domestic policies that threaten cultural diversity. Some may even argue that attempts to safeguard intangible heritage may have detrimental effects upon communities or the heritage itself (e.g. proliferation of intangible heritage via tourism or the privatization of intangible heritage via intellectual property law). Many fundamental questions are raised: How can intangible heritage be safeguarded in an increasingly globalized world? Who should decide what is to be safeguarded? What role does the cultural community play? How is the efficacy of safeguarding policies measured when authenticity is no longer an appropriate standard?

Related Resources
 
Center for Heritage and Society, 215 Machmer Hall, University of Massachusetts Amherst, MA 01003 phone: 413.545.2221  fax: 413.545.9494