The Past in Contemporary Society: Then, Now

The Past in Contemporary Society: Then, Now

The Past in Contemporary Society: Then, Now

The Past in Contemporary Society: Then, Now


Fowler assesses the influence of our heritage in the last decade of the 20th century, and, with a wide range of examples, judges the consequences of the increasing pressures of the heritage industry, providing suggestions for responsible development.


‘Then, Now’ was the title of my inaugural lecture on 20 January 1986, at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, following my appointment to the Chair of Archaeology there in October 1985. My application, written in April 1985, referred to the then present as ‘the age of the “heritage industry”’. I doubt if anyone noticed but that must have been one of the first uses of the phrase ‘the heritage industry’.

That ‘age’ persists, though taking on new shapes and meaning in the five subsequent years which have now produced a post-Thatcher phase in a puzzled, post-modernist society. Here, I set out to explore in the context of that society now what words like ‘heritage’ and ‘past’ actually mean in practice, at unique personal levels and, if such be the case, at national level. This is a topic I have been pursuing for thirty years and more, initially as a side-line in the professional life of an archaeologist and teacher. Subsequently it became more central in the 1970s when, with my increasing involvement in ‘public archaeology’, it became apparent that, not least with an international dimension, there was both academic point and social relevance to my curiosity about the ambivalences in the relationship between past and present.

That phase was marked in book form by Chapters 1 and 6 of my Approaches to Archaeology (1977). Subsequently, six years (1979-85) as head of a national heritage agency were years during which I came to think of an August body in precisely those terms while simultaneously ‘heritage’ itself came to be an ambiguous and emotive word. the next five years trying, among other things, to rationalise the field to teach a self-imposed course grandly called ‘Heritage, Management and Society’, are among the immediate stimulants to this essay.

In it, I am most obviously concerned with a British, more accurately I guess an English, perspective. Constrained geographically and culturally in my viewpoint, I am even more conscious of a temporal limitation.

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