Cultural heritage beyond culturalism

“This land is your land, this land is my land. This land was made for you and me”, sang Lady Gaga during halftime of the 2017 Superbowl held in Houston, Texas on 5 February 2017, only one week after President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning the entry into the US of citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries that are assumed to be a security threat for the United States.

“This land is your land, this land is my land. This land was made for you and me” is a song first written and recorded during the 1940s by folk singer Woody Guthrie. Originally a protest song, the version that subsequently became widely known did not contain the critical verses.  Adopted by Lady Gaga in 2017, the song was taken to be her expression of solidarity with those discriminated against by Trump and was seen as a veiled protest against the new President´s order.

“This land is your land, this land is my land. This land was made for you and me” is a commitment to tolerance that at the same time reasserts some problematic distinctions. The difference between ‘you and me’, in the context of Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’, becomes an ‘us and them’ which in turn is linked to the ownership of land (‘your land’, ‘my land’) and to a story about the past (‘this land was made…’)

For the past couple of centuries it was often not particularly controversial when exclusive cultural identities were coupled with territories and histories, although the notorious land claims of the Nazis on behalf of their Germanic ancestors led directly to World War II. Ever since the emergence of Romantic Nationalism in late 18th century Europe, nations, territories, cultures, and histories appeared to be naturally linked to each other.


A convenient depiction of different human cultures as they are associated with different parts of the world and their histories. Source:

Today, however, global processes of migration are profoundly challenging the perception of nations united by territory, culture and history anywhere in the world. All contemporary societies are increasingly subject to processes of globalisation (related to the economy, the environment, communication, popular culture, etc). Even heritage has come to flourish in international frameworks such as UNESCO’s World Heritage Programme.

The very meaning of national territory is renegotiated as some borders are opened or overcome, e.g. among the Schengen countries inside the EU and inside the British Commonwealth, whereas others are closed and reinforced, for example the border between the US and Mexico and the southern sea border of the EU in the Mediterranean. As Ashworth, Graham and Tunbridge argued a decade ago in their account of Pluralising Pasts, heritage, identity and place can be negotiated in many different ways in multicultural societies.

Concurrently, global processes of displacement force large groups of people to escape from war and misery, becoming refugees, or having to move away to make a living. Citizens in many states now represent a variety of cultures and a diversity of languages, religions, customs and traditions. These trends are illustrated by recent figures from Europe showing that the percentage of foreign-born immigrants in most European states is rising and now lies between 10 and 20% (in other world regions equivalent figures of immigrants are much higher already). The fastest growing immigrant populations in European states are from Algeria (France), Cuba (Spain), India (UK), Syria (Sweden), Angola (Portugal), and Romania (Italy, Denmark).

The problem is not of course where people are coming from. As I discussed some years ago in relation to indigenous and immigrant archaeologies, the problem is what we think is my (our) land as opposed to your (their) land, and who (and what) we think ‘this land was made for’, i.e. who belongs where. Populist national movements are gaining ground throughout European countries and in the US, by capitalising on fears that the national culture and heritage in ‘our’ country is threatened and that immigration needs to be much more restricted to combat that threat. Modern nations once stood for liberty and human rights but in contemporary nationalism ethnos dominates over demos, selective privilege over equal rights. Heritage and history are very much implicated in this development because they make cultural differences a seemingly natural outcome of the past, which ultimately governs who belongs where.

The preference of a majority of voters in the UK for Brexit, i.e. to leave the European Union, was in parts the outcome of a British identity crisis  connected to the old logic of heritage, with territory and collective identity being linked to the past. Brexit will reinstate privileges based on who people’s ancestors were, not on what they do or believe in themselves.

The underlying thinking is called culturalism, as defined by Eriksen and Stjernfelt :

“Culturalism is the idea that individuals are determined by their culture, that these cultures form closed, organic wholes, and that the individual is unable to leave his or her own culture but rather can only realise him or herself within it. Culturalism also maintains that cultures have a claim to special rights and protections — even if at the same time they violate individual rights.”

Culturalism is common among the political right in the ideal of ethnopluralism promoting different cultures to co-exist in different territories. But it is interesting that culturalism is also found among the left in their ambitions to practice peaceful multiculturalism and protect cultural minorities within each society.

Internationally, both the EU and UN are based on collaborating nation states and thus characterised by inherent culturalism linked to their sovereign member states. Whereas both organisations promote shared values and a shared European resp. global heritage, they also consider a culturalist focus on the distinct heritage of each member state as an important tool for promoting cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue across borders. For example, one main objective of the European Year of Cultural Heritage in 2018 is “to promote cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue and social cohesion.”

But do heritage and history necessarily have to be linked to an essentialising and highly problematic notion of culturalism at all? Do the past, distinct cultures and sovereign territories form a natural union that is manifested in heritage? Unfortunately, this is the impression one can get after reading a recent cultural heritage law  in the country where I live – Sweden. Although the divisive potential and threat to social cohesion of exclusive cultural identities between different groups are noted, the proposed solution is making a distinct Swedish cultural heritage more accessible to all, not in rethinking the very notion of what cultural heritage in Sweden may mean. Anders Högberg argued recently for an urgent need to renegotiate heritage and citizenship beyond essentialism. But how can we think of a heritage that is inherently inclusive rather than exclusive? Can we sever the knot that binds heritage so tightly to cultural identity and territory?

I am effectively asking here about the alternatives to the cultural heritage we know. What other heritage could there be, what other stories of the past could be told that do not reaffirm exclusive identities and distinct cultures linked to ownership of bits of land? These questions are part of me rethinking a number of principles that are widely taken for granted (see also my critique of conservation)

I would like to propose the following alternatives to cultural heritage as we know it:

  1. Hybrid heritage as a standard rather than exceptional heritage can promote the normality of cultural mixtures of various influences. Rewriting history as processes of hybridisation challenges the assertion that cultures were originally distinct and are somehow pure and exclusive by nature. The image shows hybrid heritage linked to food in York, UK.


Hybrid heritage in York, UK (photo: Holtorf)

  1. Ironic heritage can encourage shared and unifying laughter among diverse audiences. Heritage does not have to be deadly serious. This image was taken on the West coast of Denmark where remains of the Atlantic Wall built during the German occupation were embellished with a graffiti stating the result of the 1992 European soccer championship final: Denmark 2, Germany 0.

Figure 4

Ironic heritage in Denmark (photo: Holtorf)

  1. Individuals’ heritage can help us to identify with personal histories of individuals living in specific historic situations, thus promoting empathy for each human being. This image is from the Tenement Museum in New York, exhibiting the personal experiences of migrants arriving in America during the 19th and 20th centuries and at the same time making links to the lives of migrants arriving today.


Individuals’ heritage at the Tenement Museum, New York, US (source: Busy Is Reading)

  1. Heritage processes can engage us in practices that may be more important than the past they deal with. Jointly researching, interpreting, sharing, managing and using heritage is worthwhile not only for the shared engagement with the past and associated values, which it brings about, but also for the collaborative spirit in which such work should be conducted and the skills that are being learned by all participants.


Heritage processes near Telford, UK (source: Paul Belford)

  1. Future Heritage is the heritage we construct to achieve shared ambitions for the future rather than preserve memories of the past. The Tsunami Boats left on rooftops in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, after the disaster from 2004, represent a future past (and heritage) that marks not only the tragedy but celebrates at the same time the shared determination of the community of survivors to re-construct the town and people’s lives for the future.


Future Heritage in Banda Aceh, Indonesia (Picture courtesy of James Clark)

All these ways of working with heritage are alternatives to a cultural heritage that cements distinctions about ‘us and them’, where the past is linked to distinct cultural identities and distinct territories.

So don’t tell me again that “This land is your land, this land is my land” and thus evoking an outdated mode of combining exclusive identities with notions of distinct histories and territorial ownership. Heritage could still play an important role in future societies but only if it can help to transgress such notions of ownership, distinction, and exclusive privilege. This is the most profound challenge of heritage to the immigration policies of Donald J. Trump.


Why do we care about Stonehenge?


Stonehenge in the mists

England is a very densely inhabited country. It has been for many thousands of years. While the last century has seen a concentration of population in urban centres, the density of population has long been a result of intensive agriculture and other rural industries. Over those thousands of years religious beliefs have changed often, leading to different structures and sites of importance. Social inequality has been expressed in different ways; sporting activity has left different traces. In short, by any reasonable definition the whole English landscape is an archaeological site. There is nowhere that we can’t use to learn more about the past, to tell richer stories and to engage in the challenging and entertaining processes that archaeology involves.

But we don’t value all those places equally. Understanding how we come to value the heritage of some places more than others is complex and a number of projects have been working on this recently (see the Valuing Heritage Project). But few places are more valued than Stonehenge.

Is this because it was uniquely important at any particular point in prehistory? I would argue no. I suspect it is now more important than it has been at any other time in its long history of use and elaboration. Is it because we can learn more about our past there than anywhere else? I would argue no. The environmental conditions and the nature of the sites mean that whole classes of evidence (such as wood and textiles) are poorly preserved in the area. It has, however, had a very long and intensive history of archaeological research which has generated a lot of stories, questions and arguments that have in turn driven how we think about the past in England and indeed across the world.

For me, this is the essence of why we value it. We value it because it became part of a national story about the past early in the time that we were creating that story. We value it because our recent ancestors valued it. This value largely came from three features that had very little to do with the stones. Firstly its position on Salisbury plain was in the middle of a productive agricultural zone controlled by powerful families. It was therefore not industrialised or quarried when other important prehistoric sites, such as Thornborough, were.  Secondly, at the beginning of the 20th century, when the national heritage story was becoming more prominent politically, Salisbury plain became an important military training and development area. This meant that a new group of powerful people came to the area. More importantly, it was an early area for flight, and the birthplace of aerial archaeology in Britain. Thirdly, it was right beside the trunk road from London to Bath; an important route for a range of reasons but particular for the early development of tourism.

The road, of course, and the tourists, of course, are not only the source of value, but the bone of contention. Through the 20th century the number of people travelling on that road, and the number of people visiting Stonehenge both skyrocketed. While other similarly important routes through the country were widened, turning first to dual carriageways and then to motorways; the A303 was held in place because Stonehenge had become important. Widening the road would impinge on the value of the place.

Meanwhile, early excavations of the barrow cemeteries by people working for wealthy patrons gave way to excavations as part of excursions of field clubs, and then to researchers who were initially lured by the exciting finds of the earlier excavations, including gold and bejewelled weapons referred to as the ‘Wessex culture’.  This concentration of excavations also generated both interesting stories and tantalising questions both about the barrows and about Stonehenge itself (despite the fact that excavations there never produced such exciting material). So by the middle of the 20th century tourists, cars, and archaeologists all congregated disproportionately at Stonehenge; and each was a nuisance to the others.

The concentration of archaeological research unearthed material from the whole history of the landscape, but nonetheless it soon became seen as ‘timeless’. Visitors were invited to ‘step back in time’ and most of the archaeological research programmes focussed on prehistory. Indeed, until recently the county archaeological record would not include 20th century military material despite its obvious importance. The story shifted to suggest that the Stonehenge landscape was somehow frozen in time, a time capsule of sorts, giving us a precious window into the prehistoric past. People are often shocked to see the restoration photos of the early 20th century. It became valued as a pristine landscape, untouched by the modern world.stonehenge-restoration-1919

Stonehenge Restoration 1914 © Historic England archive  (see more)

By the time Stonehenge and Avebury became jointly nominated as one of the UK’s first World Heritage Sites in 1986, archaeologists and the new profession of heritage managers were convinced that the landscape surrounding the stones was immeasurably valuable. Tourists were less certain. Most people visited (and still visit) the site as part of a day tour on the way to Bath. Coaches pull up to the closest car park and visitor duly walk around the stones, marvelling, wondering, going to the loo and getting back on the coach. All plans to replace the 1970’s visitor centre included plans to encourage (or even require) tourists to appreciate and indeed explore the landscape

As the landscape came to be understood as precious, the road came to be seen as an intrusion. How could we imagine that we had stepped back in time when a constant stream of cars was speeding (or crawling) past close enough to see and hear. The road was also a problem for transport planners. The volume of traffic had led to widening of other stretches of the route, which in turn led to an increased volume of traffic and Stonehenge became a pinch point.

By the time I joined English Heritage in 2001, proposals for new roads that would dissipate the tensions between all the groups had been through many cycles. The complexity of archaeological, geological, management, and engineering data had led to the deployment of the earliest GIS in use within English Heritage and I joined the organisation to manage and develop that system. I was immensely excited to be working on such an important place. Looking at the data sets and the various proposed and discarded route plans for new roads I was immediately struck by the truth of the first paragraph of this blog. There is nowhere that you can run a road to take the traffic from the A303 that will not disrupt or destroy archaeological material. Of course the planning for the new roads had also led to yet more research and therefore yet more recorded archaeology.


screen shot of GIS in 2005 showing all recorded archaeology at that time. The red line is the boundary of the World Heritage Site. Stonehenge itself is approximately central.

The other surprise for me was the sheer number of people working on or in the landscape. The organisational chart of committees alone needed an A0 piece of paper to print out. The volume of paperwork generated through these committees would fill several rooms. Many people had spent their entire professional lives considering how tourists, cars and archaeologists could use this landscape.

The the main option on the table at that time was a ‘cut and cover tunnel’. Earlier proposals for a ‘bored’ tunnel, that wouldn’t disturb the surface had been dismissed as too expensive. Proposals for other routes had been dismissed because they disturbed too much archaeology, or too many villages. All road planning in England is subject to similar proposals and inquiries, this one simply had more people and their concerns involved. The main question was the length of the tunnel. The decision to drop the road below ground at King Barrow ridge was reached. To keep both entrances to the tunnel outside the bounds of the World Heritage Site and allow visitors the full benefit of roaming freely across the landscape would double the cost of the project.

But even that cost was too high for the government to bear. Under pressure to improve visitor experience before the 2012 Olympics, English Heritage decoupled plans for a new visitor centre from plans for a new road layout. More archaeological investigations followed and more archaeological significance was established for the landscape. Finally a new visitor centre opened with the usual mixed response from reviewers but largely welcomed by tourists. The landscape is explored much more fully in the interpretation and some of the exciting finds, including human remains are on display.

Finally the road question rumbles back into view. The government are looking for infrastructure spend and here is a road that has been through the expense and agony of inquiries and just needs money. So this week Grayling announced that he was ‘greenlighting’ the tunnel. There is a consultation period that runs until March and many archaeologists are asking you to make your feelings known. The main concern is the tunnel entrance being inside the World Heritage Site.

I am not suggesting that you make your feelings known through the consultation. I may not even contribute to the consultation myself. I don’t have any knowledge that hasn’t been taken into account. I don’t live there. I have opinions and it’s a place that I care about. But I also recognise that the current configuration of archaeologists, tourists and cars is not working well and a new one is needed. The decades of planning and consultation are enough for me.

But one of the main ways that we decide on which places we will value as heritage is through endangerment. Or as Joni Mitchel says ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone’. Saving Stonehenge is a core part of the mission to rescue the endangered heritage of Britain. If, like the Giant Panda, it were taken off the endangered lists it would lose some of its value. The arguments about how it may be saved have been going on all my life. And I don’t suppose they’ll stop any time soon.






This year’s silence

On Wednesday morning after waking to find Trump in the process of winning the election, I had no words. There isn’t always something to say.

I resist the silence of remembrance every year. I am suspicious of the way that the ‘official’ remembrance requires an official silence, that silences resistance. On this day I don’t only remember those ‘who laid down their lives for their country. I remember that we (collectively) slaughtered millions of people over the last century and don’t seem to be able to stop.

But today, I am overwhelmed. Fearful, tired, and feeling weak, I wonder if joining the silence will bring the strength of mutual reflection. I certainly need more silence. So maybe this silence is a place to start. That in the face of all that destruction a small silence is a breath in public life. To focus on the specific death of soldiers, and maybe even ‘our’ soldiers, in silence may neither acquiescence nor resistance.

So that was written just before 11, and I did sit silent; shut my computer, breathed and did my best to concentrate on that loss, the death of soldiers, and not be overwhelmed by all the other losses.  Though I didn’t feel the full sense of civic silence, it was centring. Perhaps I understand something of the original intention that I had not understood before. Or perhaps I’ve found my own place in it.  Silence does not equal consent, a period of silence can give strength for further resistance.

Cultural Heritage, Destruction and Palmyra

Just over a week ago Cornelius Holtorf published a guest post here arguing that cultural heritage is not at risk in Syria because heritage is an ongoing process. Today’s installation in Trafalgar Square of a replica of a triumphal arch from Palmyra could be seen as an example of ever growing heritage and its power to tell complex stories.

There have been some comments on Cornelius’ post here and some elsewhere. Many people agree with him, but those who have articulated their disagreement have drawn attention to the specifics of the heritage. Yes, Syria will still have a past, but it won’t have these buildings that have specific complex meanings, and that we love.

It put me in mind of this comment about coastline change:

“One of the most significant threats facing our coastline is from rising sea-levels. This can impact the coast in many ways through things like increased occurrence rates of flooding or changing patterns of erosion (and deposition). Coupled with onshore responses to climate change, this puts the coastline under increasing pressure.”

Heritage is under threat in the same way that the coastline is under threat.

Of course there will always be a coastline, it’s the place where the land meets the sea, but it won’t be the same coastline and if we’ve built things on it, or have memories associated with it, or live there, some of those things will have to change. Not everything of course, some things won’t, especially emotional things like the sounds of the waves. But its unpredictable, uncertain, a changed coastline isn’t just the same thing in a different place, silting, changes in currents etc change the animals and plants that live there, change the things that we can build and do with the place. But undoubtedly there will still be a coast.

Similarly, there will be heritage in Syria and other places, heritage is what we make of pasts in the present. But it won’t be the same heritage and if we’ve built things on it (including narratives of our place in the world) or have memories associated with it, or live (or work) there, some of those things will have to change. Not everything of course. But its uncertain, a changed heritage isn’t just the old heritage with the new war attached, nor are the old purposes removed. It will change the animals and plants that live there, change the things we can build and do with the place.

There are complex currents and eddies, strange siltings. Its absurd to say that the Roman heritage of Palmyra will be lost because the buildings are blown up. But it will be changed, altered in ways that we can’t be sure of yet. It might be helpful to think about the specifics, since that’s what is at stake rather than the generalities of heritage. The Roman heritage of Palmyra has waxed and waned and waxed again ever since those buildings were first built, despite them being, neglected, repaired, abandoned, and indeed destroyed.

The Temple of Bel, and the triumphal arch being installed in Trafalgar Square today, were built in the the third century before the Palmyrene rebellion led by Queen Zenobia.  In 273 AD Aurelian marched against Palmyra, razing it to the ground and seizing the most valuable monuments to decorate his Temple of Sol. Palmyrene buildings were smashed, residents massacred and the Temple of Bel pillaged.  This victory was celebrated by an Emperor’s triumph in Rome, where Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra had been brought in golden chains.” (A queen is not brought in an orange jumpsuit, but in golden chains). Aurelian subsequently repaired the Temple of Bel but it wasn’t until 527 AD that Palmyra was restored as a fortified city. (

The last rise in the Roman heritage of Palmyra was in the 18th century when it was ‘discovered’ by an empire keen to establish its rights to the area. The discovery, as practice, involved digging away material, writing and drawing and talking about it, and claiming it, placing it within a narrative of Empire in which the new colonial powers were the natural heirs of the former. In which the existence of this material underpinned our right to govern the area.


This astounding painting even has ‘our heroes’ dressed in togas – clearly the heirs of this great ‘lost’ city. How surprised are those ‘turks’ with them to see what had seemed before to be ‘just a ruin’ and indeed since 1400 the village in which they lived, for what it ‘really’ is, a relic of the grandeur of Empire.

This is clearly still a narrative with some power as the people installing the arch in Trafalgar Sqaure say:

‘The reason we’re doing this on Trafalgar Square is that when you set the arch against the neoclassical columns of the National Gallery and Nelson’s Column, there’s a reason why they all look the same: our past is their past,’

The narrative of loss and endangerment that both Daesh and the majority of heritage commentators have promoted glosses over the many previous destructions and the ways in which the place came again to be used to exemplify the strength but more importantly the beauty, the truth and the rightness of empire.

Unesco emphasise the coming together of different civilisations in the Statement of Outstanding Universal Value, which is entirely in keeping with the purpose of the WHS programme in building connections and promoting peace through understanding. But civilisations is often a code word for empire, and certainly seems to be so in this case. But this is what UNESCO was using the site for at the start of the Syrian Civil war, promoting the idea that civilisations can learn from each other, share culture, agree on what is beautiful and valuable.

Daesh want to use the site in another way, to show that empires grow strong through war, but that maintaining empire is more difficult than establishing it. To show that it does not belong to the world, but to them, because only someone who owns something can destroy it with impunity.

All of these narratives underplay the continued existence of an inhabited city, whose people are still under attack. As Mohamed Alkhateb, a resident of Palmyra who has been forced to flee says:

“Assad claims he launched this campaign to protect Syrians and liberate the World Heritage Sites from Isis, but his bombs have destroyed as much of the city and its precious ruins as Isis did.”


Muhammed Faris, the first Syrian Cosmonaut, now living in Istanbul as a refugee, has some perspective:

He repeatedly refers to the fortitude of the people in his hometown of Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in the world. “The Syrian civilisation is 10,000 years old. It will survive this attempt by the Assads to destroy it. It has survived worse.” But now the city’s days may be numbered, and hope might be all that is left behind. “From afar, when the Earth was so small, I really felt in my heart I could make a big difference in the world,” he says. “It has not been easy.”


This house believes that archaeological resources are not finite and are renewable

At TAG2014 I attended an excellent session framed as a debate on instrumentalism in archaeology. The idea of a debate is an important part of the intellectual culture of Britain (and of course many other countries) but I was increasingly frustrated by the way that many debates became panel discussions and disagreements were saved for the pub – often with opposing sides talking about, rather than to each other. Debate and Dissent in UK Heritage

So for TAG2015 I proposed a formal debate with a fixed structure I described the proposal here

It was difficult to find speakers prepared to propose that archaeological resources were finite and non-renewable, despite that being the position that underpins much of our legislation. Since the proposition, or government, side is more difficult, I flipped the proposal and was able to find excellent speakers for all sides, Cornelius Holtorf (@CorneliusKalmar) and myself for the proposition, Mike Nevell (@Archaeology_UoS) and Harald Fredheim (@haraldfred) for the opposition. We also had a great ‘Speaker of the House’ Paul Belford (@PaulBelford).

We had some technical difficulties as JANET, the UK’s educational network, suffered a DDoS attack and Cornelius as our first speaker had planned to Skype in from Sweden – relying on mobile phones took away from some of the impact of his presentation, but not his arguments.

We also had really great audience participation by way of speeches from the floor encouraged by our Speaker of the House. Honourable mention should go to the undergraduate students from Chester who took the plunge and brought some very interesting points to the discussion.

The wonderful were filming sessions at TAG this year and have just released the video of the debate. It was a close thing, but I’ll leave the result of the division (or vote) at the end of the debate as surprise for when you watch it.

What do you think? Feel free to continue the debate in the comments.

Cornelius’ argument also underpins his guest post on destruction

Why cultural heritage is not ‘at risk’ (in Syria or anywhere)

Many voices have been heard publically condemning the Islamic State’s on-going destruction of archaeological artefacts and sites in contemporary Syria. It is true, graves are looted, buildings dynamited and museum displays are demolished, sometimes in front of the eyes of the international community and arguably as part of a deliberate social media strategy

At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2016, Yale University drew attention of the world to the danger that ancient artefacts are being destroyed in the Syrian war and elsewhere. Yale University’s President Peter Salovey is quoted to have called for the urgent need to protect and preserve this cultural heritage for the future.

Behind such calls lies the conservation paradigm of heritage, motivated by a strong conservation ethics. This paradigm developed during the nineteenth century when modern nations started to become obsessed with preserving information and physical reminders about their past. The result was a heritage sector based on public museums and protective legislation of ancient sites and objects. This development manifested what has been described as the Noah complex of modern society.

This complex is still with us today. According to its logic, the heritage sector has the duty to conserve the most valuable parts of our cultural heritage because it has inherent value and constitutes a non-renewable resource that cannot be substituted and must, therefore, be preserved for the benefit of future generations. For example, the Global Heritage Fund stated in a publication entitled Saving Our Vanishing Heritage 2010:

“Like endangered species, many archaeological and cultural heritage sites are on the verge of extinction. They are an irreplaceable and finite resource. Without action to protect them now, accelerating economic pressures will end this long history. Once they are gone – they are gone forever.”

To see heritage as an irreplaceable resource and in terms of endangerment, threat of irreversible extinction, and need of urgent protection is, however, not self-evident but culturally and historically situated in a particular way of thinking. The underlying reasoning has now begun to be unraveled in the anthology Endangerment, Biodiversity and Culture (F. Vidal and N. Dias eds, Routledge, 2015).

According to this research, the ‘endangerment sensibility’ of modern societies perceives the future first and foremost in terms of risks and threats to what we hold dear. We are therefore called upon to protect species faced by extinction; conserve threatened biodiversity; preserve heritage ‘at risk’; and ultimately save humanity from ruining our own planet. These concerns are however less a result of genuinely understanding the specific needs of any future generations and more a result of a particular perception of their needs among a present generation that is anxious to prevent doom.

Ironically, it is often overlooked that value emerges from the very condition of endangerment itself. Just like zoos have become valued ‘conservation centres’ because of the threatened species they house (not vice versa!), many prominent heritage sites are valued and considered worth protecting because their survival is deemed to be ‘at risk’.

What is more, the logic of the conservation paradigm ignores that natural and historic processes of change and transformation are the source of heritage on Earth, not its enemy. Heritage has never been safe but it has always been changing. I argued elsewhere that even loss and destruction are not necessarily threats to heritage; in fact they may make heritage. Never have the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Berlin Wall, the Dodo and Tyrannosaurus Rex been more emblematic than since they had disappeared from the surface of the planet!

Can the devastated Syrian cities contain a heritage in the making? Does the loss of past remains imply the chance for a new heritage guiding the region into the future?

To answer this question it is instructive to look at another world region. In 2004, a huge tsunami devastated Banda Aceh in Indonesia, with the destroyed local heritage effectively becoming another victim.  But when archaeologist Trinidad Rico returned a decade later to study the heritage of Banda Aceh, she found that a heritage of the disaster had emerged. This heritage of destruction, “as a witness and key interlocutor of a historical turning point”, helped to bring local populations together in their efforts to overcome loss and plan for their future. It became apparent that many future heritage sites in Aceh, as elsewhere, needed to be build rather than re-built!


Figure: Heritage for the future. A tsunami boat in Lampulo. Image: creative commons 

In this example, the future is not perceived in terms of risks and threats but rather as a process of continuing transformation and change which we cannot always steer but to which we can adapt and which holds opportunities. In the words of historic preservationist  Erica Avrami, it is precisely the continuing renewal of values ascribed and stories crafted about sites and objects in the landscape that makes the ideal of preservation sustainable in the long term. Does the conservation paradigm of heritage, then, need to be adapted and renewed, too?

Human geographer Stephanie Lavau recently argued exactly that. She suggested that strategies to deal with climate change, despite overt links to the ‘endangerment sensibility’, may in fact more than anything else reflect the changing nature of conservation. Maintaining a timeless continuity of existing forms in protective fortresses is giving way to supporting a more fluid continuity of ecological processes by providing possibilities for future ecosystems. Whereas ‘fortress conservation’ manifests a nostalgic longing for the past, sometimes evoking grief and regret about loss and destruction, ‘fluid conservation’ allows for heritage to prepare legacies for the future as it might possibly be, drawing on human vision and hope. Such living heritage testifies and, at the same time, takes advantage of change over time.

As far as the devastating war in Syria is concerned, for all the destruction taking place, its heritage as such is not ‘at risk’. To perceive heritage as irreplaceable remains of the past, at risk of falling victim to present-day events, does not help in recognising the potential of a changing heritage to contribute to future-making as a legacy to be.

Acknowledgment: Some of this text was inspired by discussions within the Heritage Futures project

Cornelius Holtorf, Linnaeus University, Sweden

Cultural Heritage, Destruction and Palmyra

Another kind of Dark Heritage


Apethorpe1Apethorpe Hall (Photo By Brookie – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Country House. For my international readers, not just a house in the country. The Country House is the centre of an estate, the rural seat of power that complements the Town House of the aristocracy of Britain. They grew in size and social importance from the Jacobean core that some of them retain, drawing in building materials and lands from dissolved monasteries, to reach a peak just before WWI. They were run by an army of servants, with a power structure that extended that of the masters they served. To work in one was to be ‘in service’.

My Great Grandmother was ‘in service’ when my Grandmother was born. She was not married. I don’t know how she managed to retain her position, or whether she managed to get another, but clearly ‘the child’ could not be accommodated and was sent to live with an aunt. My Great Grandmother sent money for her up keep, but she was nonetheless abused and neglected, never allowed to forget the ‘shame’ of her birth. On the rare occasions she saw her mother it was not a happy occasion.

Given this family background I’ve never been able to enjoy ‘period’ dramas such as “Upstairs Downstairs” and “Downtown Abbey”. I know many people will say they humanise both sides of the power relation that is expressed in the ‘Country House’.  But what about heritage?

There has, of course, been a lot of discussion of how an ‘authorised heritage discourse’ props up the descendants of this same power system. And there are houses that make more of the experience of servants (though most of them focus on the labour, rather than the lives of the people who lived there). There are even houses that have dared to acknowledge that the money that built them came from slavery (as this important volume describes).

But they remain the most enduring image of what heritage in England ‘is’. Most descriptions of them focus on their architecture, their art collections and the ‘achievements’ of the families associated with them (Of course, the family is the aristocratic family, not the many families who built them and spent their lives running them).

This evening I saw a post on Facebook, linking to a site enumerating the ‘lost’ country houses of Wales . While this site is not seeking money to restore these houses, it still sees their abandonment and destruction as a loss.

Reading it, something in me just snapped. These buildings are a concrete expression of the foundational inequality of our world. They drove and and were built by colonialism. They were the lynch pin the survival of hereditary inequality through the modern period. Where they were not built on the profits of slavery, they were built on the profits of horrifically exploitative labour. They are still fulfilling that role. The aristocracy of England still live in them, still own huge tracts of land while proclaiming that Britain is full (as Dorset MP and descendant of slave owners Richard Drax maintains).

I was reminded of a conversation with Simon Thurley about Apethorpe Hall. The building began life as a Jacobean Hunting Lodge and grew in power through the modern period. In the 20th century, the ‘family’ sold it, the new owners  built a new house on the entranceway of the old one. The old one was used as military space, as a borstal (prison for young people) and finally as a conference centre.  Finally, the cost of upkeep outstripped the income that could be extracted from it, and the building fell into disrepair.

English Heritage had bought Apethorpe Hall through compulsory purchase and had spent many millions researching  and stabilising the material up to the 20th century and removing that which was built in the 20th century. The purpose was to make it workable for a private owner again and when I spoke to Thurley we had just sold it to a private family. He was particularly pleased because the family kept a pack of hunting hounds. He told me he was happy that the building would go back to its original use. The original purchase cost £3.5 million English Heritage spent £8 million and the new owner paid £2.5 million. But we will be allowed to buy tickets to see it in July and August.

For me, these buildings are dark heritage. Certainly not something that should be forgotten, but where we keep them we should use them to expose and explore the power that they represent. Not something we should be looking to put back to their original use. That use requires the social structure that it was integral too and we can’t use the buildings that way without perpetuating that social order.

We don’t need to keep all of them. Certainly not when we are cutting social housing and education.  When they collapse, I am happy to see it. I hope to live to see a future in which those few that remain are in public hands, museums which stand as a warning of what can happen when power is allowed to concentrate in the hands of the few.

touching anger and difference in a beautiful place