Follow by Email

Saturday, November 21, 2020

IS “HERITAGE” A VERB?

 

Belatedly (on 15th November 2020), I’ve become aware of the word “heritagization.” I’m told it was invented by archaeologist Kevin Walsh in a 1992 book entitled Representation of the Past: Museums and Heritage in the Post Modern World.

I want to object, in the strongest terms I can, to its employment.

I learned the word “heritage” as a noun, and I believe it should remain so. One’s heritage is what one receives from one’s forebears – be it tangible, intangible, or both. Heritage is mostly a matter of psychic connection, and it can be deeply personal. I honor the heritage of my Tennessee ancestors who fought on the wrong side of the American Civil War, the heritage of my Alsatian ancestors who came to America in the 19th century to make new lives, the heritage of my Scottish ancestors driven out of the highlands. I honor the heritage of other people – notably the Native American and Pacific indigenous peoples with whom I’ve long worked, and the indigenous peoples of Asia, Australia and Africa about whom I’ve learned mostly from reading. I honor the views of my mostly Anglo-American friends who regard wild horses and other animals as parts of their heritage, and of my African-American friends who struggle with a heritage of slavery and Jim Crow and celebrate a heritage of music and testimony. All these things and many others are represented by the noun “heritage.”

I do not understand “heritage” as a verb. How does one “heritage” something? Surely it must be possible, or “heritagization” would have no conceivable meaning. Can I “heritage,” say, my ancestral association with indigenous people in Appalachia, which may exist but which DNA extraction has yet to demonstrate? Maybe I can, but to what end? And what would doing so entail?

In fact, it seems apparent from the writings of Walsh and others that mere citizens cannot heritage anything. Heritagization seems to be the exclusive province of heritage authorities – governments, museums, professionals of various stripes. The notion of heritagization seems to have arisen in connection with the study of how “authentic” collections of museum objects are. Is a given object or collection of objects clearly enough associated with SuchandSo cultural group or activity or process to be blessed with the title “authentic” by appropriate authorities? From here it has been picked up by some people outside museums but nonetheless involved in keeping the physical aspects of “heritage” from harm – mostly academics in historic preservation and archaeology, it seems – to apply to the subjects of their practice. It is in this context, particularly, that I feel called upon to raise red flags.

Does government “heritagize” a place when UNESCO construes it eligible for the World Heritage List, or when a national government places it on some state-specific list of special stuff? Do we change its intrinsic character? No, surely not. We simply recognize (verb) that X place(s) – Great Zimbabwe or Notre Dame Cathedral or the Adena Earthworks (nouns) are understood (verb) to be parts of our – or someone’s – heritage (noun). We do not make them so; we stipulate our understanding that they are so.

I think this is an important distinction. We do not create “heritage;” we recognize it. Ergo, we can’t “heritage” anything.

I suppose Walsh might reply that while “we” do not heritage – “we” meaning mere citizens like myself, heritage authorities do heritage. Only they have the authority to do so. As my Australian colleague Denise Murphy dryly commented when I mentioned the matter on Facebook (15th November 2020): “It sounds more than a tad patronizing to me.”

To me, too.

You may say, “oh, that’s just postmodern wordsmuthery; they always write like that.” I’m sure that’s true – I’m all too familiar with what passes for postmodern discourse. But I keep hoping that postmodernists will come to understand that words have meaning. And if postmodernists mean what they say about attending to non-colonial, non-settler views of the world, about being alive to multivocality, they ought to be careful about such meanings. When we use words that privilege powerful entities – heritage authorities, for instance – we unprivilege (is that a word?) those who are not such entities – in this case, all those who are not heritage authorities.

Look, I have a heritage – of Scottish drovers, of Alsatian peasants, of Confederate fools – and I don’t need some heritage authority to rule on whether it exists. My friends and clients have heritages as Lummi, Potawatomi, Mewuk, Freedmen, western riders and Choon Chuuk; they don’t need their heritages vetted either. You heritage authorities simply have no business telling us what our heritage is. We will tell you, and we’ll bloody well expect you to respect our points of view. Especially if you’re in a position of authority to influence what happens to the leavings of our heritage.

You are, of course, under no obligation to preserve those leavings; you may, in the weighing and balancing of values that government must carry out and industry all too often does carry out, you are free in the end to let our heritage be damned. But you are not free to assume that our heritages don’t exist unless you, in your magnificence, decide that they exist. You cannot “heritage” anything. Heritage is not a verb.

No comments: