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.

Resurrecting History

Though previously historical re-enactments and related phenomena have passed me by without me giving them much consideration, I’ve recently had cause to ponder the entire concept in more depth.  Purely by coincidence I discovered the fantastic Victorian Farm and Edwardian Farm television series’ at around the same time that I was finishing a conference paper on Highland-themed open air museums in Scotland and Canada, and the combination of the two has really made me ponder the role of historical re-enactment in modern society.

Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore, Scotland. Source - Museums Galleries Scotland.

One of the main criticisms of any historical re-enactment, whether they be a recreated historical landscape with costumed actors (interpreters), a working period farm used for archaeological and anthropological investigation (rather like the Victorian/Edwardian Farms), or even a recreation of a historic battle, is that it is impossible to achieve any degree of authenticity.  Some go so far as to call the whole gamut fake and misleading: what we are actually doing when we re-enact or re-create is not miraculously going back in time but instead fashioning a 21st century understanding, complete with our own period’s prejudices and attitudes, of an era that often lacks sufficient archaeological and historical documentation and is therefore impossible to replicate.

I can understand and sympathise with this view, as in the wrong hands any form of historical recreation could be mangled, misappropriated or downright Disneyfied.  This is a scary thought, and one that has cropped up regularly since open-air museums and historical reneactments gained popularity in the early 20th Century.

On the other hand, however, historical recreation can be a fantastic way to engage with a community that might otherwise have had little interest in the subject matter, or may have been put off by the traditional modes of communicating it.  Through my research on the Highland open-air museums, it’s evident that they are regularly the most popular tourist attractions in their region; they act as conduits for the local Gaelic and farming communities; they encourage hands-on learning experiences through demonstrations and classes, and in some cases they even keep an important dialect – Gaelic – alive.

Edwardian Farm (BBC). Source - BBC TV Blog.

In the case of this new breed of archaeological experimentation in the form of the Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm and their precursor Tales from the Green Valley, the benefits are obvious: reaching a nation-wide audience and achieving significant viewer numbers, it’s not hard to imagine that many more people now have a grasp of the challenges of rural and domestic life in periods that were otherwise condemned to academic papers and dry history texts.  Better still, these series’ aren’t Big Brother-esque, instead presenting the subject matter in earnest, intelligent and candid commentary from archaeologists, historians and agriculturalists (bravo!).

Of course in both the tv series’ and open-air museums cases, a fair amount of editing (in the case of the tv series’, quite literally) goes on in order to present an entertaining and engaging product to the public. Much of rural life is filled with poverty, humdrum and back-breaking hard work, and while this is addressed in the open-air museums and tv series, it’s presented in such a way that the viewer/visitor only experiences it for a limited amount of time (the museums close at the end of the day, the tv show finishes at its allotted time).

So how to weigh-up the pros and cons of these forms of historical re-enactment? On the one hand it must be acknowledged that authenticity is an elusive (and some might say impossible) dream, and that entertainment and engagement with the audience does call for editing and an element of theatre.  But do these downsides outweigh the positives? I for one am happy to accept a degree of stage-management and imitation if it means larger and more diverse groups within the community are seeing (and perhaps even interacting with) a version of history that might otherwise be touched by only a few. While I do have a healthy fear of the Disney-fying Monster that stalks these historical reenactments, I have faith that – in the case of the Highland open-air museums and the BBC’s Farm series at least – the expectations of credibility and integrity imposed by the public will ensure appropriate research and presentation standards in the future.

Further reading: Highland Village Museum (Nova Scotia); Highland Folk Museum (Scotland); Victorian Farm (BBC); Edwardian Farm (BBC); Alex Langlands website.

Scottish built heritage in Ontario and Nova Scotia

I’m absolutely thrilled to be one of the recipients of the 2012 International Council of Canadian Studies‘ Research Travel Grants, because it means I can head on over to eastern Canada to get some work done.

A significant portion of my PhD research considers the Scottish built heritage in parts of eastern Canada, particularly in Nova Scotia but also including regions like New Brunswick and Ontario.  I’m hoping to visit a selection of these sites so I can talk to the management and owners, as well as their marketing and customer service staff.  I also want to pay a visit to some great research centres (such as the Centre for Scottish Studies at U. Guelph and the Department of Heritage & Culture at Cape Breton U), and some of the regional culture and heritage authorities (like Nova Scotia Museum and Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia).

So far, plans for the research trip are relying on other plans for research in Scotland, but here’s hoping I’ll find myself in Nova Scotia in July-August, just in time for the nice weather.