Museums in South Asia

Heritage, Memory and the Politics of Identity by Niamh Moore and Yvonne Whelan

Chapter 6: Changing Conceptions of Heritage and Landscape

The world is a quickly and constantly changing place and every aspect of an individual’s environment is undergoing an almost complete metamorphosis. One such element is that of our cultural heritage which, over the years, has seen a change in meaning and in treatment. In the chapter “Changing Conceptions of Heritage and Landscape” of their book titled “Heritage, Memory and the Politics of Identity”, Moore and Whelan discuss the changing notion of what constitutes heritage with specific focus on landscape as a part of heritage and the difficulties in deeming certain areas as culturally or historically important.

The authors delineate the two type of culture formations; vernacular culture, (which emerged from face to face interaction, observation and imitation and was the earliest type of culture to emerge) and high culture (that came about with the advent of the written word and centred on intellectual knowledge and values) and how the culture that emerged from earlier times is increasingly losing importance. In what the authors call “contemporary mutations of culture”, modernity has brought with it a need to cling on to older traditions.

Similarly with the subject of heritage where what is considered heritage has changed over the years. The idea of heritage emerged when religious/ metaphysical beliefs ceased to exist as the main basis for collective values and the only way to keep their meaning alive was through demarcating certain spaces as important. Soon, this changed into palaces, castles and monasteries becoming heritage structures. Today, it is mostly in the form of objects and other materials like tools and artefacts and the notion of heritage is much broader than it was in the past.

The treatment of landscapes as places of historical importance began with nationalistic sentiment becoming associated with certain places. The authors provide numerous examples of how certain landscapes (Alps for Switzerland, Western Jutland for Denmark and the Rocky Mountains for America) played an important role in the formation of national identity and how it was much later that they gained geographical importance. In a section titled “Landscapes and the Construction of Contemporary Identities”, the authors discuss that most geographers are reluctant to preserve landscapes since, if the landscape is not used for economic purposes, it will hinder progress and modernization. However, it is acknowledged that the geographers have contributed to understanding the connections between landscape, memory and identity in their analysis of the ways in which novelists, painters, photographers and other artists in their interpretation of national realities. For example, landscape architecture so popular among Venetian aristocrats in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and British ones in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was intimately linked to their class interests. Beautifying the landscape was a way for them to be accepted by the establishment and legitimate the power they exercised over the lower classes.

Through their simple but coherent breakdown of how culture and heritage have changed over the years and how landscape is an integral part of both, the authors are able to explain how time and modernity  change the perception of people and how they view their culture and what counts as heritage for them.

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