Heritage: the past in the present

Heritage stands for several major roles which the past plays in the history culture of our present society (for a history of the concept of heritage see Samuel 1994: part III). Heritage is, for example, archaeological or historical sites and objects which are appreciated for their age-value and nostalgic atmosphere, and appropriated for the affirmation of identities and political ideologies. Heritage attracts the attention of visitors to an area, because it provides "a sense of place, a sense of difference, a uniqueness for any community or area" (Peterson 1994: 242). But heritage sites also provide education about the results of research, a distinctive experience and form of entertainment which is different from the ordinary and appreciated by many tourists (Lowenthal 1985; Peterson 1994).

The published literature about heritage is vast, especially since archaeologists and historians have become increasingly dependent on funds and interest generated by the heritage industry. This is also reflected in a large number of pages on the World Wide Web dealing with heritage institutions, museums etc. A good overview is offered by 'Internet Resources for Heritage Conservation, Historic Preservation, and Archaeology'. [Image]

Major archaeological heritage sites in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern include Kap Arkona on Rügen, the Heinrich-Schliemann-Museum in Ankershagen, and the open-air museum in Groß Raden (see image right). But all over the country, lesser known archaeological sites, among them many megaliths, also attract the attention of visitors (and of marketing experts).

Interpreting the past in the present

There are a number of distinctive approaches to the topic of the past in the present, although a considerable amount of overlap in research interests and methodology exists among them.

Employing Marxist, Critical Theorist and Structuralist assumptions, one way to make sense of the past in the present is in terms of a critique of underlying structures and ideologies on which current receptions of the past are based. A good example of this approach is Roland Barthes's Mythologies (1972), especially the chapter about "The Blue Guide". Barthes accused the Blue Guide of putting forward a "bourgeois mythology of man" as part of a larger capitalist ideology. Similarly, Mark Leone and his project in Annapolis have focused on modern ideologies employed in presentations of the past, and how to challenge them critically (1987). Michael Shanks and Chris Tilley criticised in Re-Constructing Archaeology (1992: espec. chapters 1 and 4), the commodification of the past in museums and in modern archaeology.

Empirically richer, and focused on an interpretation of very different sorts of evidence is the approach of the human geographer David Lowenthal. His book The Past is a Foreign Country (1985), which summarises a large number of earlier articles by him, has become a classic on the subject. For him, the past in our everyday landscape can be explored like another country (see also my earlier research).

A third way of dealing with the past in the present has focused on the role of heritage in the post-industrial world (most recently: Walsh 1990, 1992; Fowler 1992; Ashworth and Larkham 1994; Samuel 1994). These studies have been mainly concerned with the wider implications of the marketing of the past in our 'leisure society', and with the way the discipline of archaeology functions within the framework of Cultural Resource Management (Lipe 1984; Cleere 1989; Carman 1991). An ideological critique is not necessarily implied, but how we treat the past and its remains in our present society is nevertheless politically evaluated (see also Kristiansen 1993). Special emphasis has been given to the question of how tourists experience the (past of the) country they visit (MacCannell 1973; Horne 1984; Urry 1990; Newby 1994; Light and Prentice 1994, Peterson 1994). An interesting experiential perspective on some of these issues is given by Michael Shanks in his account of archaeological 'interests' and 'erotics' (1992: parts 2 and 3). There is also some discussion now about claims to the past by different cultures and cultural minorities, and the political and pragmatic conflicts this creates within the dominant culture and its archaeology (Layton 1989).

Recently, David Harvey (2001) argued that heritage is in fact not specific to the modern world but has always been with us. Heritage, to him, is more a process or a human condition than a movement or project that began some time during the 19th century. Harvey suggested to explore heritage within a very long temporal framework and to develop the study of the 'heritage of heritage', since "every society has had a relationship with its past, even those which have chosen to ignore it" (2001: 320, 337). Although his own examples do not go beyond the medieval period, arguably my own research in this study presents case-studies for a prehistory of heritage.


Ashworth, Gregory J. and Peter J. Larkham (eds) (1994) Building a New Heritage. London and New York: Routledge.

Barthes, Roland (1972) Mythologies [1957]. London: Cape.

Carman, John (1991) Beating the Bounds: Archaeological Heritage Management as Archaeology, Archaeology as Social Science. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 10:2, 175-84.

Cleere, Henry (1989) Introduction: the rationale of archaeological heritage management. In: Cleere (ed.) Archaeological Heritage Management in the Modern World, pp. 1-19. One World Archaeology, vol. 9. London: Unwin Hyman.

Fowler, Peter (1992) The Past in Contemporary Society: then, now. London: Routledge.

Harvey, David (2001) Heritage Pasts and Heritage Presents: temporality, meaning and the scope of heritage studies. International Journal of Heritage Studies 7, 319-38.

Holtorf, Cornelius J. (forthcoming) Landscapes of Monuments as Landscapes of the Mind. The Contemporary Meanings of Megalithic Monuments. In: J. Nordbladh (ed.) Megaliths and Landscape. Göteborg.

Horne, David (1984) The Great Museum. The Re-Presentation of History. London and Sydney: Pluto.

Kristiansen, Kristian (1993) 'The past and its great might'; an essay on the use of the past. Journal of European Archaeology 1, 3-32.

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Peterson, Karen Ida (1994) The Heritage Resource as Seen by the Tourist: The Heritage Connection [1990]. In: J. v. Harssel (ed.) Tourism: An Exploration, pp. 242-9. Third Edition. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Samuel, Raphael (1994) Theatres of Memory, vol. 1: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture. London: Verso.

Shanks, Michael and Christopher Tilley (1992) Re-Constructing Archaeology. Second edition. London: Routledge.

Shanks, Michael (1992) Experiencing the Past: on the character of archaeology. London: Routledge.

Urry, John (1990) The Tourist Gaze: leisure and travel in contemporary societies. London: Sage.

Walsh, Kevin (1990) The post-modern threat to the past. In: I. Bapty and T. Yates (eds) Archaeology after Structuralism: Post-structuralism and the practice of archaeology, pp. 278-93. London: Routledge.

Walsh, Kevin (1992) The Representation of the Past. Museums and heritage in the post-modern world. London: Routledge.

© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 13 March 2002