Divorced heritage


noun /ˈheritij/ 
heritages, plural

  • Property that is or may be inherited; an inheritance
  • Valued objects and qualities such as cultural traditions, unspoiled countryside, and historic buildings that have been passed down from previous generations
  • A special or individual possession; an allotted portion

Heritage.   It is a term that can be a weapon, a drawcard, a badge of honour or an obligation.  It is used to assist education, community development, social cohesion and identity construction.  Some fear its financial and political implications, others seek it out as a vehicle for propaganda.    Many innocently assume it is a term that guarantees authenticity.

So troublesome and multifarious is the term ‘heritage’ that in recent decades we’ve found it necessary to tack additional words on, rather like goods carriages to a powerful locomotive.  We now need to situate the term (is it ‘Cultural‘? ‘Built‘? ‘Intangible‘?), and we also need to explain its genealogy.  Does the heritage belong to a ‘world‘, ‘national‘ or ‘regional‘ canon? Is it part of a ‘vernacular‘ or ‘indigenous‘ network of cultural and historical remnants and traditions?  Is it part of a ‘rural‘ or perhaps ‘industrial‘ environment?

While this summary of heritage subcategories might be useful within the established frameworks of heritage management, there are further descriptions of heritage that are much harder to pin down.  These examples of heritage fit into the subcategories I’ve mentioned above, but have additional elements that require further definition.  This is the heritage of disputed ownership, of painful pasts, of extinct cultures and remote locations.  This is the heritage that we often forget exists until an act of terrorism or neglect sees its destruction.

Several terms have been suggested for this heritage, such as ‘dissonant‘, ‘uninherited‘ or ‘disputed.’  These terms are often found scattered through heritage studies, and indeed are meritorious when applied thoughtfully.  My dilemma, however, is that I believe there is a category of heritage which doesn’t quite fit into these descriptions.

In several former colonial countries (India being the particular location of interest for my own research) there exists an array of structures that are acknowledged by both the former imperial power and former colony as being of heritage status.  The structures may be unpopular in their host country (for instance, the India Gate in New Delhi has survived several campaigns to have it pulled down, being regarded as an unnecessary reminder of imperial rule), or they may simply have been absorbed into the surrounding fabric, aesthetically still imperial but altered by paint, foliage or general decay to a point that they become easy to ignore.

Every now and then a swell of interest will see these heritage structures become important again: in India it often happens that a wealthy developer proposes demolition of a colonial-era building, provoking a local and sometimes bi-lateral (ie. from the former imperial power) outcry. Other heritage structures might be recognised as important, such as the fantastic Roxburgh Building in the Calcutta Botanic Gardens, but have as yet seen no conservation despite the best of intentions by local and former imperial powers.

Roxburgh Building, Calcutta

These buildings, halted mid-demolition or slowly disappearing under the weight of foliage and decay, are hard to describe.  Certainly they aren’t the subject of dispute, as both the former and current ‘owners’ of the heritage recognise their importance.  Similarly the heritage hasn’t been disowned or uninherited.  Further, while under threat of collapse or decay due to negligence, they aren’t the target of missiles or bombs, and therefore aren’t subject to any of the legislation regarding cultural heritage during war.

A further issue arises when you start trying to give them a genealogy or delegate responsibility.  It would be incorrect to call this heritage nationally important, because in most cases the current owners (and thus former subjects) consider the heritage as regionally important at best.  The former imperial powers are generally prevented by legal complications from categorizing the heritage as ‘national’ to them (despite it being external to their present borders), and this can be seen as a rather aggressive approach that might cause considerable upset in the former colony. Moreover, if the heritage isn’t regarded as nationally important, it can’t progress to the next step of internationally or globally important – and in almost all cases, the heritage in question isn’t of this callibre anyway.

So where does this leave the troublesome group of formerly-colonial, rather neglected but not disputed heritage as described above?  The only term I have thought of which comes close to describing this phenomena is ‘divorced‘.  Much like modern divorce, which sees a negotiation of physical assets which both parties have at least some interest in, divorced heritage is retained by one nation previously involved in partnership with the other nation.  The term also goes some way to hint at the heritage’s origins and current situation, much as the term signifies certain elements of a person’s past.  Finally the term is suggestive of the potential issues that could plague the relationship between the two parties that are interested in the heritage – while many divorces are amicable, squabbles and past hurts can get in the way of a successful post-marriage friendship.

The romantic in me also likes the small sliver of hope that such a term allows – it acknowledges a relationship now ended, but it also accepts that the heritage in question has meaning to both parties (even if these meanings might be different).  In an ideal world, it also leaves the door open to a greater and more successful working relationship later on.