Roofs in the town of Lijiang, Yunnan, China. The ensemble of buildings is listed as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. Photo courtesy Uwe Aranas

What is Cultural Heritage?

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Kathryn Lafrenz Samuels


Mapping a Concept, Integrating Fields

The study of cultural heritage has expanded by leaps and bounds in the past five years. A rough measure of this growth can be seen at the AAA Annual Meeting, where an increasing number of papers and sessions address the topic. The number of hits the term registers during a search of the online programs rose from approximately 100 hits in 2009 to 350 in 2013. Despite—or perhaps because of—this growth the term itself remains fuzzy for many anthropologists, not to mention the general public. As a result, anthropologists working on cultural heritage are often asked “Yes, but what is cultural heritage?”

The question is more astute than one might realize, because much of the energies that anthropologists observe communities, institutions and individuals expending on the topic are definitional in nature: what (and what not) to recognize as cultural heritage. There are, however, some underlying themes and characteristics of cultural heritage that we can paint in broad strokes: heritage as a cultural resource, a research orientation, and an anthropological endeavor.

Heritage as Resource

Roofs in the town of Lijiang, Yunnan, China. The ensemble of buildings is listed as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. Photo courtesy Uwe Aranas

Roofs in the town of Lijiang, Yunnan, China. The ensemble of buildings is listed as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. Photo courtesy Uwe Aranas

The concept of cultural heritage has been elaborated in legal usage and everyday practice within the management, safeguarding, and development of national and international resources. Typically such activities concentrate around specific sites, demarcated areas, even whole landscapes, and involve a formal process of designation as heritage. The purpose of designation is to coordinate efforts for conserving cultural heritage, or mitigating the impact of development on heritage.

At the national level, frameworks and practices for identifying and managing cultural heritage differ between countries. For example, in the United States we tend to speak of cultural resources in a management setting (though the term is not defined by Federal law), and designating heritage depends on its “significance.” In international circles the corpus of intergovernmental treaties under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have been most influential in creating a global lingua franca for recognizing and discussing cultural heritage. The UNESCO World Heritage List is one well-known product—from a 1972 treaty—which in some cases has increased tourism to its World Heritage Sites (WHS) dramatically, and produced substantial scholarly interest as well.

Also significant is the introduction of the term ‘intangible heritage’ through the UNESCO 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The 2003 treaty defines intangible heritage as “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills—as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith—that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage,” eg, spiritual practices, folklore, song, dance, cuisine, to name just a few.

Intangible heritage was developed as a category to describe cultural heritage beyond the tangible forms (for example built architectural heritage and artifacts arrayed in museums) that typically compose western ideas of heritage. However, such categorization is not prescriptive. As alluded to in the definition for intangible heritage above, any expression of heritage is composed of both tangible and intangible elements. Spiritual practices involve sacred settings or objects, just as buildings organize human activities within.

Intangible heritage opened up discussions at the international level to be more inclusive of alternative conceptions of heritage, whether non-western, indigenous, or local to a community. It is in the same vein that cultural heritage is increasingly a topic of research, even gaining its own interdisciplinary moniker of heritage studies.

The Present Past, the Past Present

The new zeal for cultural heritage, as a focus of research, is the result of broadening the scope for how the past is dealt with in contemporary society. Like the impetus behind intangible heritage, there is a recognition that what came before is experienced— incorporated and reinforced, or rejected and forgotten—in diverse ways across the world. The past is no longer the lone province of disciplinary knowledge like archaeology or history.

Anthropologists studying cultural heritage are interested in this diversity, and in facilitating collaborations between disciplinary knowledge and other ways of knowing the past. For this reason, research in cultural heritage is typically community-oriented, and therefore shares affinity with public archaeology, public history and ethnohistory. Another way to think of this opening up to different worldviews: rather than taking heritage as a given, assuming that heritage designation defines what heritage is, researchers are engaging with the process of definition itself, and the struggles that often result.

The results of these efforts have shaped a new research orientation that is unique in several respects. This new research orientation sees cultural heritage, at its base, as focusing on the relationships forged between past and present, being neither wholly past-oriented nor present-centered. What do these relationships look like? What characterizes and sustains them? Cultural heritage is also understood to be a creative process, where the past is constantly remade in the present. Even preservation is an act of remaking, requiring a great deal of care as it seeks to ossify one version of the past.

Mahmood Mamdani offers one of the most evocative descriptions of this creative process, though he was discussing the creation of customary law (versus civil law) under colonial indirect rule in Africa:

Indirect rule was not about tolerating ‘native’ custom, as if it were a permissive gesture of a tired power. Neither was it about inventing custom as if it was writing on a blank slate… The point was to go beyond an understanding of custom in the singular to unravelling its many strands, thereby to identify the authoritarian strands so as to sculpt it and build on it, sanctioning the product officially as customary law (p 865, “Historicizing Power and Responses to Power,” 1999, emphasis in original).

Here the sculpting of traditional lifeways sought to build a particular form of power, and so selected the authoritarian strands of tradition that could be mustered. Similarly, heritage studies have been closely attuned to the role of heritage in propping up established power, and Laurajane Smith’s work on “Authorized Heritage Discourse” (AHD) has been widely influential in this regard.

But cultural heritage is not in itself a repressive matter. Cultural heritage also offers opportunities for social change, with the long arc of history providing a vivid repertoire of past examples for fashioning future possibilities. Heritage provides a cultural lexicon for understanding and attending to change. In this respect, I like to think of cultural heritage as the social science of change. The analytical perspective afforded by cultural heritage provides a study of social change and innovation: crossing temporal scales and knitting together past, present, and future.

Anthropological Field Work

Cultural heritage is an interdisciplinary area of research, but in the United States it has found a particular home in anthropology. The study of cultural heritage integrates anthropological interests, cutting across the four fields of anthropology. This is especially the case for the fields of sociocultural anthropology and archaeology, with cultural heritage joining contemporary and historical concerns, ethnographic and archaeological methods, and the intangible and tangible dimensions of human experience.

An oft-remarked difficulty from anthropologists working on heritage is how to identify oneself, for example which box to tick in grant applications to Wenner Gren. Is this research sociocultural anthropology or archaeology? You cannot check both. Engaging with cultural heritage challenges traditional boundaries between the two fields and invites us to rethink the temporal assumptions that divide them.

Studying cultural heritage also requires the development of new methods. Archaeological ethnography paved the way by first turning an ethnographic eye on archaeological practice, and from there investigating the work that archaeology does in the world, its ethical considerations, and implication within various social, political, and economic struggles.

More recently, heritage ethnography has been on the rise. Like archaeological ethnography, heritage ethnography balances a range of different sources in producing an account of human engagement with the past. Researchers undertake participant observation at heritage sites and conduct interviews while also spending long hours in archives or museums. Topics like sustainable development, heritage rights, social justice, intellectual property, folklore, civil society and governance are front and center.

Outside of anthropology, scholars working on heritage are turning increasingly to ethnographic methods as well. The four-field approach, with anthropologists and archaeologists housed in the same departments, means that programs and scholars in the United States are well-poised to take a lead in the emerging field of heritage studies.

Kathryn Lafrenz Samuels is an assistant professor of anthropology at North Dakota State University. She is currently a Fulbright Scholar hosted by the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research in Tromsø, Norway, where she is conducting ethnographic research on cultural heritage and climate change in the Arctic.

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