The Rupture in Cultural Heritage Meanings: Where Are We Going? (Where Do We Want to Go?)

Photo by David Pacey under Creative Commons license.
Photo by David Pacey used under a Creative Commons license.

Recently, I was reading a post on LinkedIn where a World Heritage expert was attempting to define cultural heritage for the twenty-first century. Many people have tried to do this, especially in terms of World Heritage and state definitions of cultural heritage for use in the protection and inscription of built heritage. These are what I would call  “thin” descriptions of heritage that are too objective, scientific, and simple. The goal of finding a simple definition of heritage is fallacious because of the complexity of its meanings, which can be summarized as follows:

  1. The meanings of heritage are based on social, cultural, and personal beliefs, perceptions, and feelings of a wide range of stakeholders (experts and laypeople); these meanings are informed by cultural practices, person-place relationships, and emotional bonds with place.
  2. Because heritage is constructed from meanings, all heritage is intangible even if we are addressing concrete artefacts (e.g., objects, buildings). Tangible objects do not have inherent meanings; people attribute meanings to objects. The meanings are in people not in things.
  3. Heritage can be found everywhere.
  4. Everyone is a heritage expert.
  5. Heritage bridges natural and cultural divides.
  6. The meanings of heritage can and do exist independently of historical facts and are informed by what people think here and now.
  7. Heritage meanings are not fixed, and are best understood as resulting from dynamic sociocultural processes.

Most of the regulations that address the protection of built heritage and give employment to built heritage experts are fundamentally incapable of considering these characteristics. (Yes — this is an exceptional claim. I’m working on a co-authored paper that should be published soon to substantiate it.) Thus, the “meaning” of cultural heritage in the 21st century is defined by its rupture from the laws/rules/regulations of the state and the loss of control of this meaning by experts.

My question is if heritage experts have the tools and ability to address this rupture; I’m quite concerned that the current answer to this question is not particularly positive.

Where do we go next?

I’ve asked this question numerous times over the past decade and I keep coming back to the role of higher education as an answer. Fundamentally, I believe we need to retool the “historic preservation” major in colleges and universities in the United States. After all, what better way to provide burgeoning professionals the tools they need to be better practitioners? Ways to accomplish this goal, however, are not particularly clear. In the 1970s and ’80s where the first curricula for preservation programs where created, a few white men sat around a table and made decisions pretty much independently of other actors. Decisions in this environment were relatively quick and efficient, even if they missed the wider sociocultural boat. Now, even considering change is a massive undertaking because it requires that we change the culture of historic preservation education. Simple, right? Not even.

While I don’t think we should abandon the traditional emphasis on architectural/construction history, objective documentation, and positivistic/rationalistic theory found in the typical preservation major, there needs to be a serious injection of critical heritage studies, applied social sciences, and community empowerment/social justice in our programs. (Yes, I’ve tried — see my co-edited book, Preservation Education, but I often feel my voice is lost in the crowd or no one particularly cares, or worse, doesn’t understand the need for change.) If we, as historic preservation educators, don’t wake up to this reality then our field will become increasingly marginalized and only defined by its compliance based (i.e., laws/rules/regulations) aspects.

What would you do?


The obligatory references to back up the claims in my list, above, and a list of recommended reading:

Bagnall, G. (2003). Performance and performativity at heritage sites. Museum and Society, 1(2), 87-103.

Blake, J. (2000). On defining the cultural heritage. International & Comparative Law Quarterly 49 (2000), 61–85.

Cane, S. (2009). Why do we conserve? Developing understanding of conservation as a cultural construct. In A. Richmond & A. Bracker (Eds.), Conservation: Principles, dilemmas and uncomfortable truths (pp. 163-176). Amsterdam; Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.

DeLyser, D. (1999). Authenticity on the ground: Engaging the past in a California ghost town. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 89(4), 602-632.

Gibson, L., & Pendlebury, J. (2009). Introduction: Valuing historic environments. In Valuing historic environments (pp. 1-16). Surry and Burlington: Ashgate Publishing.

Green, H. L. (1998). The social construction of historical significance. In M. A. Tomlan (Ed.), Preservation of what, for whom? A critical look at historical significance (pp. 85-94). Ithaca, NY: National Council for Preservation Education.

Harrison, R. (2013a). Heritage: Critical approaches. New York: Routledge.

Harrison, R. (2013b). Heritage. In P. Graves-Brown & P. Angela (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of the archaeology of the contemporary world (pp. 273-288). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

King, T. F. (2009). Our unprotected heritage: Whitewashing the destruction of our cultural and natural resources. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Levi, D. J. (2005). Does history matter? Perceptions and attitudes toward fake historic architecture and historic preservation. Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 22(2), 149-159.

Low, S. M. (1994). Cultural conservation of place. In M. Hufford (Ed.), Conserving culture: A new discourse on heritage (pp. 66-77). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Mason, R. (2003). Fixing historic preservation: A constructive critique of “significance”. Places, 16(1), 64-71.

Mason, R., & Avrami, E. (2002). Heritage values and challenges of conservation planning. In J. M. Teutonico & G. Palumbo (Eds.), Management planning for archaeological sites (pp. 13-26). Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute.

Milholland, S. (2010). In the eyes of the beholder: Understanding and resolving incompatible ideologies and languages in US environmental and cultural laws in relationship to Navajo sacred lands. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 34(2), 103-124.

Morgan, D. W., Morgan, N. I., Barrett, B., & Copping, S. (2010). From national to local: Intangible values and the decentralization of heritage management in the United States. In G. S. Smith, P. M. Messenger, & H. A. Soderland (Eds.), Heritage values in contemporary society (pp. 113-128). Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Muñoz Viñas, S. (2005). Contemporary theory of conservation. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Prott, L. V. & O’Keefe, P. J. (1992). “Cultural heritage” or “cultural property”? International Journal of Cultural Property 1 (2), 307–320.

Schofield, J. (2009). Being autocentric: Towards symmetry in heritage management practices. In L. Gibson & J. Pendlebury (Eds.), Valuing historic environments (pp. 93-113). Surry and Burlington: Ashgate Publishing.

Schofield, J. (2014). Who needs experts? Counter-mapping cultural heritage. Farnham: Ashgate.

Smith, L. (2006). Uses of heritage. London and New York: Routledge.

Smith, L. (2009). Deference and humility: The social values of the country house. In L. Gibson & J. Pendlebury (Eds.), Valuing historic environments. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Tainter, J. A., & Lucas, G. J. (1983). Epistemology of the significance concept. American Antiquity, 48(4), 707-719.

Waterton, E. & Smith, L. (2010). The recognition and misrecognition of community heritage. International Journal of Heritage Studies 16 (1), 4-15.

Waterton, E., Smith, L., & Campbell, G. (2006). The utility of discourse analysis to heritage studies: The Burra Charter and social inclusion. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 12(4), 339–355.

Wells, J. C. (2007). The plurality of truth in culture, context, and heritage: A (mostly) post-structuralist analysis of urban conservation charters. City and Time, 3(2:1), 1-13.

Wells, J. C. (2010). Authenticity in more than one dimension: Reevaluating a core premise of historic preservation. Forum Journal, 24(3), 36-40.

Wells, J. C. (2015a). In stakeholders we trust: Changing the ontological and epistemological orientation of built heritage assessment through participatory action research. In B. Szmygin (Ed.), How to assess built heritage? Assumptions, methodologies, examples of heritage assessment systems. Florence and Lublin: Romualdo Del Bianco Foundatione and Lublin University of Technology.

Wells, J. C. (2015b). Making a case for historic place conservation based on people’s values. Forum Journal, 29(3), 44-62.

Zancheti, S. M., & Rosane, P. L. (2012). Dynamic integrity: A new concept to approach the conservation of historic urban landscape (HUL). In Textos para discussão no. 53 (pp. 1-11). Olinda, Brazil: Centro de Estudos Avançados da Conservação Integrada.


3 thoughts on “The Rupture in Cultural Heritage Meanings: Where Are We Going? (Where Do We Want to Go?)

  1. Virginia Greene

    Having recently completed my MS in Historic Preservation, it is compelling that the debate was neither discussed nor broadened, but the need is clear and you have been heard- where are the social/cultural and social justice/activist curriculum in most programs. Heritage defenders have created a hard shell approach both globally and locally for understanding elite heritage organizations and what motivates their own culture. As you say, the opposite must occurr at an exponential rate of change.

    • Jeremy Wells

      It’s definitely interesting to get your take on 21st century approaches to heritage and how this was not part of your educational program. At least anecdotally, this seems to be my impression — critical approaches to heritage are usually not part of many historic preservation degree programs in the United States. There are likely a number of reasons for this, but I think the fact that faculty in such programs don’t do empirical research, have little or no social science training, and often aren’t full time, all contribute in some way to the situation. We also have rather little leadership in higher education when it comes to heritage conservation/historic preservation so there’s no “push” or reason to change the status quo.

      • Jeremy Wells

        I’d also add that the doctrines of historic preservation tend to be taught as received wisdom without trying to help students understand why and how they developed based on the social and cultural contexts of the day. I can’t tell you how many historic preservation courses I’ve seen that are essentially taught from the National Park Service’s Preservation Briefs.

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