Heritage and Identity

The term heritage is deeply linked to the concept of identity, as well as to the connection between people living in the present and people, groups, ideas, material objects, practices, events or places from the past. This link between past and present derives in part from the etymology of the word heritage itself, as the root has its source in the Latin term for heir, “heres, heredis”, with the modern term referring to that which may be inherited.[1] Indeed, this etymological approach to the term heritage evokes the passage of property from one person or group to another over the course of time. The relationship between heritage and issues of identity reflects two questions one must ask when defining the term: that is, 1) “Who inherits what from whom?” and 2) “What rights does that process of inheritance give the inheritor?”  These questions require the explicit identification of present and past owners of inherited cultural property, whether it is tangible or intangible, of what property constitutes that inheritance, and of the implications that the answers to these first questions have for power over that inheritance. In indicating the subject, object and associated contemporary power structure referenced in these questions, the process of identifying something as heritage rather than just “historical” brings “that which may be inherited” into the realm of identity politics. Indeed, Derek Gillman, who served as President of the International Cultural Property Society in 2010, proposed that “heritages (or cultures) are ways of thinking and talking about communities of people in space and time, related by shared practices, conventions and norms,” thus indicating the discursive, community-based and non-objective  elements of heritage production.[2]

Additionally, this framing of heritage as evidence for a link between the past and the present also serves as a common tool for the creation of identity stories for groups of all sizes, of all affiliations, and across the time and space of human history. However, both of these evocative terms, identity and “heritage,” lack unique or explicit definitions, with many potential interpretations and implications depending on the paradigm and agenda of the one writing the definition. One common component of the term identity as expressed by scholars of the field of cultural heritage is that it is something that “aggregates people, no matter how different their individual selves may be. But identity is not just about inclusion. It is also about exclusion. In order to identify with some, people also need to dis-identify with someone else,” even when those same people profess to affiliation with multiple, overlapping identities.[3]  Anthropological investigations into the formation of such identities have shown that the methods and manifested types of identity production can drastically complicate this view. In practice, the many forms of and creative processes involved in the construction of these perceived similarities and differences among groups of people – particularly when such processes come to justify various heritage management policies – give rise to vehement arguments over how heritage and identity should be institutionally linked, and who should get to decide the “who/whom” in the process of defining that link. Here, polarized debates can spring up concerning who gets to be stakeholders with significant interest in and power over the heritage/identity connection, with each side often choosing different interpretations for the meaning of not only these central terms, but also favoring either very specific or very broadly-defined groups for the roles of “giver” and “receiver” in the fundamental question of “Who inherits what from whom?”.[4]

The narratives that constitute this process of linking heritage and identity build on the past of the peoples in question, utilizing stories and material evidence supposedly inherited from those who have come before in order to symbolize solidarity for a select group, provide legitimacy to those telling the stories[5] and to create focal points that can stand in as representatives of greater historical patterns, values, and perceived truths marked as unique to the group in question.[6]  When these stories integrate components of tangible and intangible history into contemporary symbol systems, this kind of identity narrative begins to answer the first of the above questions, in the process constructing cultural heritage and cultural property out of stories and objects believed to be from the past. Alasdair MacIntyre, a scholar of contemporary political thought, has discussed how communal narratives and traditions support the creation of particular identity stories in such a way that Derek Gillman believes to support the premise that “’Heritage’ objects, then, are deeply associated with aggregations of cultural narratives, practices, values and virtues.”[7] In this way, the conception of heritage can provide the content for expressions of identity, support for identity narratives, locations for performing the continual process of creating identity, and give people a way to “experience community [while] they simultaneously legitimize and consent to the agendas of its builders and caretakers,” and distance themselves from those outside their community. [8]  In this way, the association between heritage and identity, as terms, processes and objects of study or agency, leads the conception and production of cultural heritage itself to rely on representations of unity and diversity, and therefore to be a useful tool of national, transnational and subnational institutions that utilize the ideas of unity and diversity to their own benefit, particularly where controversies over identity politics are clearly pronounced.[9]


[1] Online Etymology Dictionary

[2] Gillman 2010: 21. Emphasis added.

[3] Anico and Peralta 2009: 1

[4] I.e.: Groups associated with a particular regional, national, religious, ethnic or language, etc. affiliation on one hand, or all of humankind, on the other.

[5] Anico and Peralta 2009: 1

[6] Lowenthal 1996: 6

[7] Gillman 2010: 91

[8] Anico and Peralta 2009: 1

[9] Anico and Peralta 2009: 2

Indeed, Anico and Peralta state that “Heritage, in this sense, is closely linked with power and is an influential device in the construction of nation-states as well as in the identity politics led by multiple groups that are globally situated.” (Anico and Peralta 2009: 1). It is important to keep in mind that innumerable instances of creation, manipulation, representation and destruction of cultural heritage stories occur at the hands of those not directly associated with a political institution, although the way that the conception of identity constitutes a key ingredient in the transformation from merely historical object, place, story, etc. and into an item of cultural heritage makes this process inherently socio-political. (Anico and Peralta 2009: 2)

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