Heritage: In the eye of the beholder

An observation by Mike Coyle

At any appropriate opportunity, I happily declare that I am a ‘Blackpool Heritage Volunteer’. I understand the nomenclature, I understand the role, I think I understand the concept, but the term ‘Heritage’ remains vague to me. So, what is ‘Heritage’ about? Is there somewhere I can find out, perhaps an online source I can interrogate for an answer?

Any attempt to get a rational definition is fraught with academic danger and intrigue. Heritage is confused by elements of tangibility and intangibility; perception and concept; cultural identity; ideas and memory.

First port of call, a dictionary. However, its not helpful:

Heritage (Noun): …features belonging to the culture of a particular society, such as traditions, languages, or buildings, that were created in the past and still have historical importance.

At this stage, it worth considering the origins of the word ‘Heritage’ to provide a clue towards a definition:

(Originally) c. 1200, “that which may be inherited,” from Old French iritage, eritage, Heritage “heir; inheritance, ancestral estate, heirloom,” from heriter “inherit,” from Late Latin hereditare, ultimately from Latin heres (genitive heredis) “heir” (see heredity). Meaning “condition or state transmitted from ancestors” is from 1620s.

That brings us a little closer, it’s about ‘Inheritance’, ‘something transmitted from ancestors’. But what is transmitted from ancestors. Further research suggests more complications. Harvey (2015) quotes Tunbridge and Ashworth (1996)

‘a contemporary product shaped from history’

A ‘product’ then? More complications! A product implies a tangible form, but we know that we can regard language, condition, skill, song, or other intangible as Heritage. I’ve inherited several phrases that my grandad used, ‘Never assume malice when stupidity will do!’; You’ve always got to have something to look forward to’. Does that represent a product?  It is contemporary because I use both regularly and it is shaped from history.

The ‘contemporary’ description is an important one, everyone will interpret or perceive a ‘product’ as ‘Heritage’ by his or her own measures and standards. My dad may well have perceived something of his Heritage or inheritance: his Uncles watch or his meticulous attention to detail, that I might discount from my perceptions of value.

We could regard Heritage as a service, which includes tangible artifacts and venues together with sets of intangibilities. A service because Heritage as a product ignores the role of users engaging with the products. Producing a loaf of bread without someone to eat it, remains a loaf of bread. The story of a loaf must include its purchase, consumption, and satisfaction of its consumers. Writers on service quality have scrutinised the elements comprising the service experience and the gaps in that service experience that impact on users of the service.

A modern, collective understanding of Heritage requires us to regard it as precious meaning we must impart a perception of value to others. A building like Blackpool’s Grand Theatre is regarded as part of our Heritage, to be treasured, retained, and left for future generations to enjoy and to pass on themselves. So now we can add a ‘temporal’ theme to Heritage. To protect what we inherit for future benefit and educate folk in their value.

The problems do not end there. An apposite, but fictitious quote can be found to describe the problem:

‘History is that certainty produced at the point at which the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’

Briefly explained, the quote suggests rightly, that the ability and authenticity of the recorder of history (or in this case, Heritage) it totally dependent on the constraints on recording, adequate memory, interpretation and setting down those interpretations cogently.  We rely on style of writing, intellect and ability of both writer and reader equally.

Archaeologists do not have facts to work with, but they are able to interrogate their knowledge and experience, deduce and project understanding and interpretation of circumstantial features of an object, in a bid to help our understanding. But we, the public are left just a little insecure; can we really rely on the stories about lost Fylde villages – Kilgrimol, Singleton Thorpe, Waddum Thorpe, without specific evidence.

Harvey (2015), expresses concern in the way that Heritage is presented to the public and the influence of presentation on our interpretation and perception of Heritage products:

‘… a visit to a cathedral has always been a highly mediated and controlled Heritage-related event. Just like museums, their layout and architecture, fixtures and fittings, practices and ritual, are carefully choreographed, replicated and constructed in order to convey messages about the ‘order of things’ as represented through a specific notion of the past.’

Like all ‘truths’ of the past or present, Heritage is subject to interpretation, understanding and acceptance. Much has been written recently about efficaciousness of ‘Truth’. Today, truth is under close scrutiny, with advent of ‘fake’ news, ‘Augmented Reality’, ‘Artificial Intelligence’, ‘Conspiracy Theory’, and bias. There is much scepticism, re-interpretation (noting the recent Colston incident in Bristol), even denial of truth, presenting a real opportunity for academic research relating these modern conventions and constructs to Heritage.

As we move closer to a definition, what’s Heritage for? What is its role or purpose? We need to consider both its altruistic role and its commercial role. As a subject rather than a product, Heritage provides us with a glimpse into practices and behaviour, not to mention skills and culture, of the past, rather than simply museum references.

The commercial imperative, or saleability of Heritage presents both opportunity and risk. Opportunity to capitalise on public appeal and attraction of Heritage concepts, exhibits and venues. Risk in the betraying the integrity of those concepts, exhibits and venues, in favour of a marketing benefit, increased footfall or contribution to costs.

There is a third consideration of purpose, that is organisational development. National and local authorities have found a convenient banner in ‘Heritage’ to bundle those functions, that were previously stove piped in to function silos, libraries, museums, archives, historic properties, etc. The Heritage Council of Ireland goes further by defining its version of Heritage thus:

Our Heritage comprises:  …the tangible – our historical sites, buildings, monuments, objects in museum artefacts and archives; the natural – our waterways, landscapes, woodlands, bogs, uplands, native wildlife, insects, plants, trees, birds, and animals; the intangible – our customs, sports, music, dance, folklore, crafts, skills, and knowledge.

Our tangible, intangible and natural Heritage and all the associated myths, legends, traditions, and memories provide us with a common language and insight that enables us to communicate on a deep level with each other and to express ourselves in a unique way to the outside world.

By broadening the definition, the organisation finds efficiency in delivery of its mission and services. It also imposes ‘democratisation’ of definitions for Heritage, requiring us to agree a standardised interpretation of what Heritage means to society. For example, Heritage in Fleetwood necessarily includes heavy reference to its seafaring history; in Horwich, its Railway and Locomotive Works; in Blackpool, its entertainment venues, and connections; in the National Trust, its stately homes, and gardens.

So where does this leave us in attempting to define Heritage? It has become clear to me that Heritage is in the eye of the beholder. It is what people say it is, depending on what it is seeking to achieve. I am still happy to declare that I am a Blackpool Heritage Volunteer.

Mike Coyle
Oct 2020

Sources and further reading

Definition at:
Oxford English Dictionary and
https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/Heritage. Accessed on 06/10/2020

Heritage Council of Ireland at:
https://www.Heritagecouncil.ie/what-is-Heritage. Accessed on 06/10/2020

Harvey, DC., (2015), The History of Heritage, Ashgate Research Companion Available at:
http://www.campusincamps.ps/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Harvey-Heritage-08.pdf. Accessed on 06/10/2020

Etymology of the term ‘Heritage’ at:
https://www.etymonline.com/word/Heritage. Accessed on 05/10/2020

Fictitious quote regarding recording history at:
Patrick LaGrange, a fictitious philosopher quoted in Barnes, J., 2011, ‘The Sense of an Ending’, Jonathon Cape, London.

Service Quality Tangibles and Intangibles
Zeithaml VA., Parasuraman A., Berry, LL., (1990), Delivering Quality Service: Balancing Customer Perceptions and Expectations, Simon and Schuster