ERASURE AND APPEARANCE: A critical view on urban heritage management practices in China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam


In the past 20 years, literature has emerged within heritage studies that explores the ways heritage is erased and the implications of such erasures for heritage management and visitor experience. This literature focuses a critical lens on issues of erasure and highlights its political, social, cultural, and economic motivations, (e.g. Fibiger 2015; Holtorf and Kristensen 2015; Silverman 2010). In this chapter we extend the treatment of erasure, positing that erasure is accompanied by commensurate appearance. Like the erasures to which they are inextricably linked, appearances are laden with political, social, cultural, and economic motivations, including: solidifying a religious heritage, developing a coherent national identity, and developing economic benefits of heritage tourism, among others. In examining erasure and appearance in the context of contemporary heritage, we approach the two terms not as separate; instead we understand them as a single process in which the introduction of one implies the other. We see them as a dyad linked through management policies and practices. Furthermore, these two have the ability to occur in either order, with erasure at times occurring first followed by appearance, or vice versa. In either case, one suggests the existence of the other.

This chapter is organized into five main sections. After this introduction, we then explore the erasure-appearance dyad (EAD), explicating its operation through policies and practices of description, prescription, and proscription. Next we examine the EAD in the realms of tangible and intangible heritage, using UNESCO-inscribed World Heritage sites Luang Prabang and Hoi An. The fourth section explores the EAD in two locations on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List, examining uses of description, prescription, and proscription in these contexts. While these cases all represent the EAD process in the Asian context, the process occurs wherever heritage is identified and sought out by visitors, albeit with the influence of particular social, cultural, economic, and political context. The conclusion considers how an awareness of the EAD might inform construction of multiple urban heritage narratives and how those multiple narratives can enrich ‘heritage-scapes’ (Di Giovine 2009) for residents and visitors.

Erasure and appearance

Understanding erasure and appearance in contemporary heritage contexts requires a clear definition of terms. For heritage, two of erasure’s definitions are of interest. First, erasure is literally an act of deleting or ‘removing something completely’ (Cambridge University Press 2018). In heritage contexts, this addresses erasure’s active nature and the conscious goal to remove specific objects, ideas, practices, or memories. While usually an intentional act, erasure can result unintentionally from heritage management policies and practices. For example, as this chapter’s cases show, when the physical context for intangible heritage is removed intentionally due to its incongruous relationship to an authorized heritage, intangible heritage can quickly be erased. A second meaning of erasure is the trace left by the attempt to erase. As in writing, erasing sometimes results in marks — physical erasures — that remain on the page. In heritage contexts, objects, ideas, practices, or urban memories that were meant to be erased, at times leave traces, becoming instead new appearances (see for example, Fibiger 2015).

Two definitions of appearance make its reciprocal relationship vis-d-vis erasure clearer. First, appearance is the ‘the act or instance of appearing’; a coming into existence (Morris 1973: 62). This includes the creation or recreation of heritage objects, or the creation of facsimiles of heritage objects. Within this appearance, it is easy to see a relationship to questions of authenticity. In heritage contexts, a second meaning of appearance, ‘the act of becoming noticeable’ (Cambridge University Press 2018), occurs by the very act of naming something as heritage. Naming brings the heritage into being through appearance. As with erasure, appearance can be intentional or unintentional. Valorizing particular built objects and commensurate heritage tourism development can give unintentional appearance to heritage sites. Appearance elevates the profile of heritage objects or brings to consciousness previously unknown heritage objects.

Simultaneously operative in heritage contexts, erasure and appearance are linked through practices of heritage designation and management. These practices are not neutral; rather they are laden with the values that underpin much of contemporary heritage discourse, which explicitly or implicitly values or devalues certain aspects of heritage. This discourse, or what Laurajane Smith calls the ‘Authorized Heritage Discourse’ (AHD), results in a definition of heritage that ‘promotes a certain set of Western elite cultural values as being universally applicable’ (Smith 2006: 11), giving appearance to a particular heritage. The AHD is grounded in the history of western notions of conservation and preservation that link contemporary discourse to the writings of Ruskin and Morris and to the birth of archaeology and architecture as professional bodies of knowledge authorized to define heritage (Smith 2006; Wells 2007). Furthermore, this discourse initiates the policies and practices of heritage management which are activated through description, prescription, and proscription. As Figure 20.1 shows, erasure and appearance are linked through and take place by means of these three processes that describe, prescribe, and proscribe various tangible and intangible heritage and the management practices meant to ensure their continued existence.

In the context of heritage, description, ‘[tjhe process or technique of... transmitting an impression of with words’ (Morris 1973: 357), is used to enumerate the salient features of heritage. However, these descriptions are not neutral. Rather, these descriptions, as discursive practices conducted within the context of contemporary heritage management, are grounded in the AHD (Smith 2006; Wells 2007). This management practice builds on a western male-dominated perspective that values a specific heritage (Wells 2007: 3). While more contemporary heritage documents, such as the Nara Document, have as their goal a more relativistic approach to heritage, in practice they fall back on previous models that underpin the AHD (Wells 2007). Thus, the descriptions of heritage objects developed by contemporary management practices tend to invoke definitions of heritage, authenticity, and truth that are informed by the AHD. Description, simultaneously constructed by and resulting from the AHD, activates erasure through omission of competing heritages. And with its focus on heritage objects, description of the physical

The erasure—appearance dyad

Figure 20.1 The erasure—appearance dyad.

Source: John C. Stallmeyer

heritage can effectively erase intangible lived experience - that which imbues the heritage-scape with meaning. Likewise, description gives appearance to heritage that may otherwise have been invisible. For example, as shown in the Chang Mai case below, the description of Chang Mai heritage gives appearance to the Lanna kingdom and heritage that has otherwise been invisible to outsiders experiencing the city. Description, in concert with prescription and proscription, can give appearance to objects that are only marginally authentic, that is to say have been created, or recreated through approved heritage processes. Thus, description enables erasure and appearance, as the following examples illustrate.

Prescription is the ‘the act of telling someone else what they must have or do’ (Cambridge University Press 2018). Within heritage management, prescription sets down recommended actions meant to ensure the survival of heritage as described. In the context of contemporary heritage practice, these actions are thought beneficial to the achievement of a cohesive heritage-scape. Both erasures and appearances occur through such prescription. From recommended removal of incongruous built elements to rules that set out how new objects are to be constructed within a given context, prescription has wide-ranging influence on the construction of heritage-scapes, as well as visitor experience. Prescription is always explicit, setting out what should be done. Unlike description, it only operates explicitly. What is left out of any prescription is excluded because of erasures rooted in the heritage description.

Proscription, ‘to forbid an action or practice officially’ (Cambridge University Press 2018), in the context of heritage management policy and practice, includes rules and regulations that forbid and prohibit particular actions, especially with respect to built heritage. As with description and prescription, proscription suggests an active process that intercedes through management practice and through discursive intervention. Hence, by prohibiting a certain action or object, another is given appearance. Thus, proscription brings about to the same extent that it eliminates. Proscription is particularly evident in rules for preservation and conservation of heritage objects. Here again Ruskin’s continuing influence is clear. A review of his ‘Lamp of Truth’ reveals the strong prohibition of various ‘architectural deceits’ that may influence the truthfulness of the architectural object, and therefore, we might argue, influence the authenticity of the heritage object (Ruskin 1849). As we will see, proscription to cleanse heritage objects and larger landscapes of undesirable components plays an important role in erasure within the context of built heritagescapes (Dearborn and Stallmeyer 2010). With this common foundation of terminology, this chapter now examines how description, prescription, and proscription undergird erasure and appearance in four East and Southeast Asian cases in relation to UNESCO World Heritage inscription and Tentative Listing.

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