“Heritage can mean whatever you want.” Thus spoke the late Lord Martin Charteris, then-chairman of the British National Heritage Memorial Fund. While his statement has been criticized for its apparent flippancy and capriciousness, it also reveals what can be called a definitional problem in heritage research and practice. All definitions of cultural heritage are based in some way on the notion of an ongoing link between past, present and future generations cultivated through the preservation and transmission of either tangible or intangible forms, but as the field of scholars and practitioners utilizing heritage in discourse and practice expands, there is a palpable lack of consensus on the meaning, value, and ethical treatment of cultural heritage.

While it is an anthropological truism that culture is learned—and thus inherited, elaborated upon and passed down—this definitional problem goes beyond mere semantics. Operational definitions organize thought and practice, and make their way into legal instruments that have real material impacts for communities large and small, public and private, global and local. They also determine who is allowed a voice in heritage debates. Indeed, cultural heritage today is a burgeoning industry that attracts academics, development experts, and local community members alike for its powerful ability to draw disparate groups together, generate funding for preservation, and inspire meaningful action with global impacts. It also is a touchstone for adverse and contentious social, economic, and political activities, including looting, destruction of cultural property, marginalization of ethnic groups, museumification, intellectual property disputes, bioprospecting, and even warfare. Anthropologists, archaeologists, and scholars of “critical heritage studies” (http://criticalheritagestudies.org/) see this as a particular problem, since heritage includes a notion of ownership-through-descent, marking an “in” group and an “out” group that is integral to the formation of group identity in multicultural and global milieux.

Although there is historical evidence that peoples from antiquity to the Renaissance cultivated some notion of a shared cultural heritage that should be preserved for posterity, the term as it is generally used today entered the lexicon proper during the age of imperialism. The term appeared in 1830s France as patrimoine and as “heritage” in the UK’s 1882 Ancient Monuments Act, a product of distinctively fin-de-siècle fears of societal decadence and transience at the hands of modernization and industrialization; however, it also was necessitated by the imperial imperative to order an increasingly expanding world into enlarging national boundaries.

Originating from a word denoting an object of value passed down in a will (“patrimony”), this usage indicated a shift from a small-scale, kinship-oriented definition of family inheritance (héritage) to a broader notion of inheritance based on political imaginaries of belonging. Heritage was (and continues to be) defined in a distinctively artifactual sense, and, owing to its political nature, is often conceived unproblematically as a form of singular ownership.

The conservation movements in the 1960s and 1970s led to the internationalization of cultural and natural heritage as a universal good or resource that transcends the place and peoples in which it was originally created. The most prominent is UNESCO’s 1972 World Heritage Convention, which, as Di Giovine argues in The Heritage-scape: UNESCO, World Heritage, and Tourism (2009), was a broad peacemaking endeavor that called upon nation-states to voluntarily offer up what they saw as their cultural resources as “the common heritage of humanity, for whose protection it is the duty of the international community as a whole to cooperate” (UNESCO 1972). This is a shift from a kinship-based definition of heritage predicated on ascribed ownership to one of achieved (or acquired) ownership founded on preservationist duty.

Critics of the convention pointed out that the majority of those sites deemed to be “of universal value” conformed to Western conceptions of aesthetics, history, and elitist culture, leaving out many diverse communities whose valued cultural products could not easily fall into such categories. UNESCO somewhat reconceptualized the term in 1994 in its Global Strategy to target a wider diversity of material cultural forms such as industrial heritage and cultural landscapes, and then again in 2003 when it passed its Intangible Heritage Convention. The latter signaled a move away from heritage as tangible, material objects sedimented in sites (however de-territorialized they are in theory) to intangible traditions, values, performances, and cultural practices that underlie the creation of a group’s sociocultural fabric. Today the Intangible Heritage List includes elements as disparate as the Mediterranean Diet and the French Gastronomic Meal, religious rituals, Vietnamese gong music, theatrical performances, and Azeri horse-riding games. Put another way, intangible heritage indicates a shift from a fixed cultural product valued (and evaluated) for its authenticity and permanence, to cultural producers and their creative processes, which are fluid, negotiated, appropriated, and reinvented.

There have been several other challenges to the paternalistic conception of heritage as a duty. Perhaps the most salient for US anthropologists and archaeologists has been the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Challenging the longstanding, elitist duty to preserve a material artifact, it concretized in a legal instrument the idea of heritage as cultural property. Cultural property implies that such patrimony is integral for a group’s identity and autonomy as cultural beings; it can take different forms and be used, and valued, differently by cultures other than our own. Descendant communities have the autonomy or right to utilize their material culture in culturally appropriate ways, even if their practices conflict with our Western, “expert” duties to preserve it for posterity (and especially for science). Thus, it is often difficult to balance development and scholarly research with preservation and respectful communication with descendant communities. As a result, best practices are changing for archaeologists who work on ancestral homelands of American Indian communities, even if some practices are not legally mandated. Conversations with community members therefore are becoming increasingly important for negotiating the nature of projects and developing multivocal interpretations of archaeological resources. In these cases, patrimony has shifted from an idea of objects or their productive processes to be preserved, to the notion of a social practice marked by debate, and hopefully consensus-building, precisely around the problem of defining heritage.

It is important to note that these definitional shifts are not exclusive, and that today all of these different notions, and concomitant values, of heritage exist simultaneously. Anthropologists, archaeologists, preservationists and development practitioners—as well as descendant communities, nation-states, and even supra-national entities such as UNESCO—frequently embrace multiple, and sometimes conflicting, operational definitions as the particular situation requires. The impact of the latter definitional shifts—from tangible to intangible, paternalistic to more democratic or multivocal—has been to intensify the complexity of the discourse surrounding heritage. It is further complicated by a number of recent developments, including the obsolescence of older management models of the nation-state, an intensification of connectivity through technological innovations in digital media and communication, greater self-reflexivity on the part of researchers and practitioners in the field, and the increased mobility of a new and expanded global middle class whose members espouse not only diverse definitions of cultural heritage but also different values and habitus towards its consumption, both in everyday life and in ritual or touristic interactions. Such developments have recently caused anthropologists to rethink the very notion of cultural heritage and to initiate projects aimed at forecasting future developments in the field.

One example is France’s Pa.Ter.Mondi working group—a multidisciplinary consortium composed of over sixty social scientists, digital media experts, and heritage practitioners spearheaded by the Sorbonne’s Maria Gravari-Barbas—which has been engaged in dynamic and systemic research on “New Stakes for Cultural Heritage” (www.univ-paris1.fr/centres-de-recherche/eirest/projets-en-cours/arp-nouveaux-defis-pour-le-patrimoine-culturel). The consortium took a prospective look at the evolution of cultural heritage and its challenges (economic, societal and cultural) to understand the French government’s future research needs. They projected five different scenarios based on the future power of public institutions at the national and supra-national levels, commodification of heritage, social cohesion and territorialization, and strength of Western cultural hegemony.

Another initiative, the international collaborative research program “Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage” led by Rodney Harrison at University College London, is concerned with how changing conceptions of heritage constitute different ontologies of assembling, valuing, caring for, and making “the future” itself. Looking at practices as diverse as waste management and messages sent into space (see the related project by co-investigator Cornelius Holtorf, http://lnu.se/research/research-database/project.aspx?id=1524&l=en), this program is concerned with exploring the quotidian practices in which specific forms of value and futures themselves are actively assembled across a broad and heterogeneous variety of alternative domains, and the potential for innovative knowledge transfer across such domains, to highlight the connections between that which is conventionally called cultural heritage and other issues of contemporary and future ecological, social, and political concern.

Concerned with the future of cultural heritage from a professional standpoint, the AAA itself has also begun important initiatives to systematically position its membership as visible experts in the field. In 2013, then-President Leith Mullings convened the new Task Force on Cultural Heritage (www.aaanet.org/cmtes/commissions/Task-Force-on-Cultural-Heritage.cfm), which is charged with producing recommendations to build a stronger, durable and multifaceted approach to issues of cultural heritage in the association. One of the task force’s charges is to systematically assess and analyze the myriad meanings and concomitant practices of cultural heritage.

“We are living in an age of heritage,” is a refrain that is often repeated among heritage scholars. Yet what exactly constitutes heritage, and how it informs meaningful practices, continues to be elusive today. These definitional endeavors, and many others, can further position anthropologists to make meaningful contributions in understanding, and positively shaping, equitable heritage practices in the future.

Michael A Di Giovine is assistant professor of anthropology at West Chester University. His research in Europe and Southeast Asia focuses on heritage discourse and practice, tourism, pilgrimage, foodways and revitalization. Michael is program chair of the anthropology of tourism interest group and a member of the AAA Task Force on Cultural Heritage.

Sarah E Cowie is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada-Reno, and specializes in historical archaeology, social theory and decolonizing methods. She currently is working on a collaborative archaeology project to address a communications impasse in tribal/federal regarding the management of heritage resources and is a member of the AAA Task Force on Cultural Heritage.

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