Uses of Heritage. Laurajane Smith. London: Routledge, 2006. 351 pp.
Reviewed by Burt Feintuch
In a recent review in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella characterizes the academic use of the term discourse.
“In the postmodern vocabulary,” she writes, “this means the web of
assumptions that collect around a cultural fact, with heavy emphasis on
notions that have been unmasked as naïve and ridiculous by French
theorists. The names of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jean
Baudrillard come up frequently. . .” (2007). Uses of Heritage
is largely about heritage as discourse. More specifically, Uses is
about discourses that contrast or conflict, all of them with heritage
as their subjects. Heritage, then, Laurajane Smith would maintain, is a
social construction. And the particular portion of society that does
the constructing is the key to understanding heritage and its uses.
the start, there is the AHD, the “authorized heritage discourse.” This,
Smith says, “takes its cue from the grand narratives of Western
national and elite class experiences, and reinforces the idea of innate
cultural value tied to time depth, monumentality, expert knowledge and
aesthetics” (p. 299). If that seems a portrait in very broad
brushstrokes, Smith also assures us that in practice the AHD embodies
more subtle differentiations and disagreements, and is more subject to
change than her general characterization initially appears to allow.
But more important is that the AHD has palpable qualities and outcomes.
First, it has power. Some of that comes from its close connections to
international and national organizations such as UNESCO or English
Heritage. Some of it derives from material realities—it is often the
privileged and their comparatively well-endowed institutions, she
writes, who endorse and promulgate the official story.
power has its consequences. Heritage is a kind of social process, and
it does what Smith terms “cultural work.” That is, with the advantages
that power provides, the AHD serves to establish what counts as
heritage, what its value is, where resources should go, and what
cultural identities matter in the context of particular times and
places. In Smith’s model, the authorized heritage discourse is one of
the primary, if not the
primary, ways in which heritage is constituted. The discourse, Smith
argues, creates heritage; heritage is not something that exists in the
world awaiting discovery. All this means that “heritage is a
culturally directed process of intense emotional power [that is] both a
personal and social act of making sense of, and understanding, the past
and the present” (p. 304). And it also implies that despite the
increasingly common distinctions we find in heritage industries between
tangible and intangible heritage, in an epistemological sense, all
heritage is intangible. The tree falling in the forest, this analysis
suggests, makes no sound without someone there to hear it.
lays out this model in two chapters—one based in discourse analysis,
the other on heritage as cultural practice—both under the broad rubric
of “the idea of heritage.” Then she examines various institutions that
embody the AHD. One chapter discusses official instruments and
institutions such as UNESCO’s Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage,
adopted in 1972, and more recent UNESCO work on intangible cultural
heritage. These are among the “authorizers” in the authorized heritage
discourse. Then, under the rubric “authorized heritage,” she moves to
two kinds of official heritage sites—English country houses and
Australia’s Riversleigh, a series of densely packed fossil fields
designated a World Heritage Site under the UNESCO convention. The
country house chapter is rich, because it includes a close examination
of visitors’ understanding of their experience and the ways in which
they make meaning during their times on site. “It is a truth
universally acknowledged,” Smith writes, tongue-in-cheek, “that a
country house not in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a
heritage tourist” (p. 115). Her survey data—showing visitor
demographics and ways in which visitors construe their visits—add very
useful flesh and bones to a generally abstract argument.
something is authorized, backlash is nearly inevitable. Contested
heritages, dissonant discourses, and other power struggles figure in
the balance of the book’s three chapters under the heading “Responses
to Authorized Heritage.” One chapter is a close examination of museums
of labor heritage, including the influential Beamish (The North of
England Industrial Museum). Another looks at the English town of
Castleford, a deindustrialized community in Yorkshire. The author
writes that Castleford lost its way, in terms of community cohesion and
pride, in the wake of the bitter mining strike of the mid-1980s.
Heritage, she says, is now being used to redefine and re-engender a
sense of social ties and connection to place. The two chapters, like
the country house chapter, are fleshed out by survey data. Finally, a
chapter takes on the subject of indigenous people and the fraught
question of who controls heritage, and how. This is a very important
subject, one that is being argued out in many forums, from the
intergovernmental to the local.
Uses of Heritage
is a dense book, closely argued and wide-ranging in its concerns. As a
reader, I found that it opened provocative questions. I also finished
it with some ambivalence. The author’s dense prose is likely to make
the book less useful than it might be; if it asks important questions
for people in the field, perhaps many readers who are in the trenches
of heritage work will find the thickness of its prose uninviting.
Readers who know contemporary cultural criticism may find that the
notion of heritage as discourse is not all that surprising. A great
deal of contemporary scholarship tells us that culture constitutes, and
the concepts of discourse and social construction are quite common
these days. So, while the details are very useful, the analytical
framework feels familiar. But it is unequivocally important that the
author reminds us that heritage is made, not found; that it is
intimately tied up in relations of power; and that for many people, it
matters. Among the book’s many other strengths are its historical
examination of the development of the idea of heritage, especially in
official settings, and the flesh and blood of its survey information. I
was disappointed that, discourse and abstract thought aside, this
paperback book had a real weakness; its spine broke before I’d managed
to read it to the end.
2007 “The Typing Life: How Writers Used to Write,” The New Yorker, April 9, http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2007/04/09/070409crbo_books_acocella (accessed November 12, 2007).
Feintuch is the Director of the Center for the Humanities at the
University of New Hampshire, where he is also a Professor of Folklore
and English. He is the author and editor of many works, including Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003) and (with David H. Watters) The Encyclopedia of New England (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 2005). His research interests include
heritage policy, public humanities work, and North American music.