I The Anglo-American heritage debate
How it started The debate about the British, heritage industry
The heritage boom in the 1970s: “Britain is the world’s first heritage state”
When the General Conference of UNESCO adopted the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage in 1972, the word “heritage” played only a marginal role in the vernacular of the UK. Into the nineteenth century, heritage was a legal term reserved for material possessions descending to an heir and used in the sense of “inheritance.” It was only in the context of nation-building and the accompanying invention of traditions (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983) that heritage expanded to cover the tangible and intangible inheritance of the nation (Lowenthal 1985; Butler 2006). But until the early 1970s, heritage remained a concept disconnected from everyday life, one which was usually only invoked during national celebrations (Brisbane and Wood 1996; Lowenthal 1998a).
The meteoric rise of heritage in the UK vernacular of the 1970s can be traced back to various processes that were interconnected on different levels and mutually amplified each other. For one thing, a number of international initiatives with the word “heritage” in their names were established in the 1970s, including the European Architectural Heritage Year, announced by the Council of Europe in 1975 and, above all, the UNESCO World Heritage List, which was launched in 1978 and boosted the popularity of heritage tremendously (Prentice 1993).2 For another, national associations such as Save Britain’s Heritage—a group of journalists, historians, architects, and planners that was founded in 1975 and quickly gained political influence—began responding to the burgeoning national discourse on the cultural heritage of Great Britain. The latter had been triggered largely by an exhibition on “The Destruction of the Country House” that opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1974. The exhibition had been commissioned by museum director Roy Strong and included a “Hall of Destruction” which presented more than one thousand stately homes that had been demolished in the previous 100 years. Today this exhibition is viewed as the spark that ignited the heritage boom (Hewison 1987).
The popular exhibition was held at a time when the UK Labour government was considering introducing a national wealth tax. According to the media campaign launched by Save Britain’s Heritage in 1975, this wealth tax would have led to the sale of countless country houses and thus the further decimation of their already thinning ranks (ibid.: 66f.). This and other acute threats to “national heritage” were identified by the Conservative Member of Parliament Patrick Cormack in his 1976 book Heritage in Danger (the second edition of which included a foreword by Roy Strong). This book billed itself as “a comprehensive study of the many threats facing our national heritage,” and it became the founding manifesto of a rapidly coalescing heritage lobby (Cormack 1976: cover text).
The exhibition, campaign, and book ultimately managed to stave off the planned wealth tax. What was even more remarkable than this success, however, was that the concerted actions of the informal heritage lobby,3 which had grown stronger in the process of defending country houses—to the point that even the influential National Trust, a charitable organization established in 1895 for the preservation of national heritage,4 aligned itself with it—resulted in a tremendous increase in public awareness of the subject matter and scope of the endangered national heritage that had suddenly become the focus of so many advocates.
Stoked by media coverage and costume dramas such as the TV series Brideshead Revisited, which aired in 1981 (Hewison 1987: 51ff.), “heritage” became a buzzword that conquered ever widening areas of public life in the 1980s. The term, which conveyed positive values such as pride, tradition, identity, uniqueness, and endurance (Merriman 1991), was gradually discovered by companies, tourism managers, and advertisers, who associated it with profit opportunities (Prentice 1993). This led to numerous commercial heritage products and sites which would radically change the semantic content of the word “heritage”: “Heritage [became] associated with ideas of commercial exploitation, shallowness, and packaged history” (Brisbane and Wood 1996: 5). Broad interest in the heritage label gave rise to a complexity which made it increasingly difficult to define exactly what it referred to:
So widespread and fast growing is such interest that heritage defies definition. Indeed, the term celebrates every conceivable thing and theme: anchorites and anoraks, Berlin and Bengal, conkers and castles, dog breeds and dental fillings, finials and
fax machines, gorgonzola and goalposts are topics typical of a thousand recent books entitled Heritage of_. Pervading life
and thought as never before, heritage suffuses attitudes toward everything.
(Lowenthal 1996: 42; cf. Brisbane and Wood 1996; Schroder-Esch 2006)
From the mid 1980s, the heritage boom in the UK was accompanied by a lively national debate among scholars whose arguments, explanatory approaches, and criticisms of heritage will be outlined and evaluated in what follows. The “classic” publications on this discourse which remain influential today include the books by Patrick Wright (1985), Robert Hewison (1987; 1989; 1991a; 1991b; 1993), John Corner and Sylvia Harvey (1991a; 1991c), Raphael Samuel (1994) and David Lowenthal (1985; 1996; 1998a; 1998b; 1998c; 2000), each of whom published extensive works on the subject of heritage and commented on each others’ publications. Their dialogue reflects the development of theories ranging from traditional Marxist approaches, through Weberian conceptions and social-constructivist explanatory models of the heritage boom, all the way to attempts to formally define heritage in order to move beyond the national level of analysis and limited perspective of the 1970s and 1980s and embrace a wider spatial and temporal scope. The debate can be structured according to how the heritage phenomenon was evaluated: some researchers viewed the heritage boom as a sign of social stagnation, while others interpreted it as a far-reaching social shift culminating in the fundamental upheaval of established social structures and values (Lumley 1994).5