Academic journal article Ethnologies

Changing Visions of Heritage Value: What Role Should the Experts Play?

Academic journal article Ethnologies

Changing Visions of Heritage Value: What Role Should the Experts Play?

Article excerpt

Are the aims of heritage conservation and commerce converging? Is the voice of the heritage expert now guided by the vox populi? The current evidence for these trends, long considered anathema to heritage purists (e.g. Petzet, 2010), suggests that an epoch-making change in heritage practice is now underway. The announcement of a Memorandum of Understanding between the World Bank and UNESCO to provide "very positive input for the improvement of aid effectiveness, and make the most of culture as a motor for social development and poverty alleviation, through employment and job creation" (UNESCOPRESS, 2009) and the theme of the 17th ICOMOS General Assembly /'Heritage, a Driver of Development" (Mouton, 2013) are both clear indications of a pressing new concern: that heritage contribute to the economic--not only cultural--well-being of contemporary society. No less significant is the emphasis on public rights and responsibilities in the formulation of heritage policy, once the exclusive prerogative of antiquarians and professional conservators. This turn to the public as full-fledged heritage stakeholders is expressed clearly by the Council of Europe's Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society (2005) and the efforts of UNESCO to promote the active participation--and economic advancement--of traditional practitioners of intangible cultural heritage (UNESCO Media Services, 2013).

Economic development was certainly not among the original motivations for the 19th century historic preservation and folklore documentation movements (Jokilehto, 1999; Bendix, 1997). Both were aesthetic-ideological reactions to the rise of modern industrial society (Matsuda, 1996). At a time when life had increasingly become a series of anonymous monetary transactions and mass immigration from farms to factories threatened time-honored lifeways and social relations, an appeal to tradition through the monuments and memories sought to restore some measure of social harmony. Since--or so it seemed to cultural elites in Europe and North America--that stable historical standards of significance and value were needed, a professional class of experts and administrators was empowered to establish the chronological and stylistic criteria for the kinds of cultural remnants and relics that needed to be saved (Jokilehto, 1999: chapters 4-8). Seeing themselves as the saviors of national and civilizational tradition, the early professional conservators of both tangible and intangible heritage assumed the public responsibility to discover, document, and honor the legacies of pre-modern eras, be they architectural monuments, art objects, regional dialects, volkisch costumes, dances, or fairy tales (among many sources: Ashurst, 2007, Bendix, 1997). Those identified heritage elements became modernity's symbolic "other" and in the sense that modernity was perceived to be all about change and movement, those antithetical, premodern heritage elements were endowed with the seeming quality of permanence and timelessness.

In the 19th and most of the 20th century, public participation in heritage was considered best when passive; the unchanging, elite values of each nation's cultural heritage were seen as a cultural vitamin that would enhance the citizen's patriotism or cultural literacy (e.g. Dietler, 1994; West, 1999; Glassberg, 1990). The distinction between high and low culture was clear and inviolable; the cultural experts, empowered by increasingly complex bureaucracies and cultural institutions guarded the borders and determined the priorities (Levine, 1988). Yet with the economic and social disruptions of the 1960s and the rise of history "from-the-bottom-up," culture was recognized a legitimate political battlefield, not a fact of nature that had only one correct and authoritative reality (Starn, 2002). The 1972 World Heritage Convention adopted a universalizing, global perspective, yet minority and indigenous communities in former colonial societies began to associate the right to designate and control their own heritage places as a demonstration of political legitimacy (Smith, 2006). …

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