Monumental Mistakes: Heritage Wonks Have Colonised the Past for Profit, Replacing Understanding with Kitsch. Give Us Back Our History. (the Back Half)

By Hunt, Tristram | New Statesman (1996), December 2, 2002 | Go to article overview

Monumental Mistakes: Heritage Wonks Have Colonised the Past for Profit, Replacing Understanding with Kitsch. Give Us Back Our History. (the Back Half)


Hunt, Tristram, New Statesman (1996)


In 1974, the Victoria and Albert Museum hosted an exhibition entitled "The Destruction of the Country House". The cry then was "heritage in danger", and an influential establishment combination of the National Trust, the House of Lords and a consortium of conservation bodies hoped to stave off an attack on the country house imperium by the incoming Labour government. The campaign was a success: Wilson had other things on his mind, and the next quarter of a century witnessed an extraordinary renaissance in the ownership and running of Britain's stately past.

Yet this week's report by English Heritage into the condition of the historic environment is headlined with an eerily reminiscent lament: "heritage in danger of becoming history". After undertaking a national audit of our ancient monuments and listed buildings, it concludes that the historic environment is "under attack from all sides" and "urgent action is needed to prevent England squandering its most valuable resource".

Curiously, it is almost impossible to conclude from the report's accompanying facts and figures that heritage could, under any rubric, be regarded as "in danger". In 2001, there were 57.7 million recorded visits to 983 leading historic visitor attractions, while during the weekend of the hugely popular Heritage Open Days, some 800,000 people took the opportunity to visit 1,831 properties outside London. More broadly, the National Trust now boasts 2.9 million members, while involvement in local history societies and conservation trusts is mushrooming. Political scientists have yet to compute it, but this historic constituency now comprises a powerful component of British civil society.

A shared passion for the historic environment is merely one element in our broader national veneration for all things historical. History is booming. The TV repeats of Simon Schama's A History of Britain continue to pull startling audience numbers, while the sales figures for Berlin: the downfall show that the Antony Beevor military juggernaut isn't slowing down. More interestingly, the popular appetite for the past is now feeding through to academia. Today, there are 15,000 sixth-formers taking A-level history, 30,000 undergraduates reading history, 3,000 research students studying for higher degrees and 3,000 university teachers. According to David Cannadine, director of the Institute of Historical Research: "More history is being taught, researched, written and read, and is concerned with a larger part of human experience, and embraces a wider spread of the globe, than ever before." Cannadine regards this as "a wholly unusual and unprecedented state of affairs".

Yet outside of higher education, the report confirms just how large a number receive their impressions of the past through the museums, historic theme parks, stately homes and the whole panoply of often kitsch sometimes spectacular institutions and "experiences" that comprise the heritage industry. Given that history in schools is compulsory only up until the age of 14 and, according to Bernard Crick, the government's citizenship guru, new immigrants to this country will not be required to learn about Waterloo or anything else, the heritage sector is an essential medium for the public understanding of history.

From its popular coinage in the mid-1970s, the notion of "heritage" has received plentiful attention -- for while the British public might be drawn to it, British intellectuals are mesmerised by it. During the 1980s, a critical industry quite as successful as the heritage sector emerged to berate the unthinking, Conservative ethic of "Brideshead Britain". The poet Tom Paulin voiced it most succinctly: "The British heritage industry is a loathsome collection of theme parks and dead values" -- a thesis expanded upon at great length in Robert Hewison's The Heritage Industry, Patrick Wright's On Living in an Old Country, and David Lowenthal's The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. …

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Monumental Mistakes: Heritage Wonks Have Colonised the Past for Profit, Replacing Understanding with Kitsch. Give Us Back Our History. (the Back Half)
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