The Meanings of Heritage

guest post by Paul Betts and Corey Ross, editors of our latest supplement Heritage in the Modern World

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Heritage is back in the news.  Islamic State’s grisly bulldozing of the ancient Assyrian archaeological site of Nimrud in Iraq a few weeks ago has elicited worldwide shock and revulsion, punctuated by UNESCO’s designation of the act as a war crime.  Habib Afram, the president of the Syriac League of Lebanon, remarked in an interview with The Guardian (6 March 2015) that ISIS is seeking nothing less than to “erase our culture, past and civilization,” and likened their impact to the Mongol invasion of the Middle East in the 13th century. A CNN article of the same day reported that Iraqi state television condemned the act as an attack on “humanity’s civilization, the Mesopotamian civilization.”  For its part, UNESCO has strongly condemned this cultural vandalism as an affront against all peoples, claiming that these artifacts belong to all of humanity.  Such international outcry about the terrorist destruction of sacred pasts is reminiscent of the Taliban’s detonation of the Bamiyan Buddhas back in 2001, as the neologism “cultural terrorism” came to international prominence to describe this flagrant act of iconoclasm.  What is interesting to note in the Nimrud case is how the designated heritage of the artifacts – many of which date from seven to nine centuries BC – has variously been understood as Iraqi, Mesopotamian and/or universal.

Such shifting notions of provenance and ownership are not new, however; on the contrary, different historical understandings about the meaning and maintenance of precious cultural property have been a key strand of modern thinking and practice since the mid-19th century, as the invention of usable pasts has been fundamental to the making of modern identities across the world.  From the origins of historic preservationism in early eighteenth-century Europe to the popularization of new heritage industries after the Second World War, efforts to conserve and protect a collective inheritance have been a crucial field for articulating new forms of cultural identity, community and belonging.  This volume reconsiders how, why and in what guises these diverse conservation practices emerged, grew and interrelated in a global perspective.  It brings together scholars working not only on Europe and its colonial territories but also on Latin America, China, Japan, the Soviet Union and North America in order to examine the extent to which the various attempts to define, protect and mobilize ancestral pasts were part and parcel of an increasingly global and interconnected approach to heritage in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Together, the contributions tackle a range of overarching issues, including the relationship between war, revolution, imperialism and preservation; how agents and critics of heritage preservation mapped on to structures of state sovereignty and political legitimacy; the role of law, custom and notions of the sacred in shaping heritage management; and finally, how changing technologies and cultural practices impacted on what was (or was not) preserved for posterity.   Building on previous scholarship on the ‘nationalization’ of ancestral pasts, Heritage in the Modern World offers a novel perspective by focusing on the increasing ‘internationalization’ of heritage and the ways in which local and trans-regional trends of historical preservation overlapped, interacted and were contested.

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