I recently read the book Common Ground? Heritage and Public Places in New Zealand edited by Alexander Trapeznik. One of the more interesting parts is the definition of heritage. Seeking such definitions is probably a characteristic of English-speaking academia. And I think they do not arrive at a settled definition by the end of the discussion, but through it we get an idea what they are talking about.
Heritage can refer to “things of value which are inherited”. They are passed on to us and we regard them as valuable. But generally they also are things that, if they have been in the private sphere, now become public. It is the collective, which sees value in our heritage.
But this heritage is continually shaped by our current expectations. It is little wonder that when we discuss heritage, we “talk about pride and community cohesion, spinning tales of success, not failure. In doing so [heritage advocates] increasingly market heritage as a commodity, producing a past that did not exist in order to promote the interests of the tourist industry, property developers, the keepers of public culture and the promoters of national identity.” That is a problematic aspect of heritage. And yet at the same time, is it not good that we select the most beautiful things as our heritage?
Our concern for heritage is also skewed by our focus on the grand and the greater permanence of well-built houses. “As a result, the heritage built on wealth, privilege, and education looms larger in the landscape than that of the commonplace.”
The authors also note that the past can constrain us and may preclude innovation. “Our heritage, therefore, whether it is built or natural, provides constant source for argument and debate as the claims of tradition and innovation clash.”
It is a helpful discussion, but the authors do not take a view of the human being in time. It is overly focused on management and buildings. I think that heritage shapes us, whether we reject it or take it up. And even though valuing our heritage is a selective process, it nevertheless impacts us.