Heritage, memory and identity - global issues?

20 Oct 2011

Can heritage be globalised like information or commerce? Martine Hawkes reviews a collection of essays from around the world on heritage, memory and identity.



While some corners would argue that our world is a global one in terms of commerce or information dissemination, can the same claim be made about the ways in which we order memory and frame heritage? As Derrida observed: ‘one does not count the dead in the same way from one corner of the globe to the other’. Or, we should add, from one era or epoch to another.

Heritage, memory and identity offers the reader twenty five case studies, commentaries and essays by various contributors, plus a foreword by Pierre Nora, reflecting on the relationships between heritage, memory and identity on a global scale. The volume, part of the Cultures and Globalisation series from Sage, concludes with a collection of 20 Indicator Suites, with empirical and visual presentations of the themes of heritage, memory and identity. The essays work as stand-alone cases or as a cohesive collection. While this cohesion is slightly let down by inconsistent editing across the twenty five contributed essays, they provide an enjoyable read and offer fresh insights. There is no aspect that is disproportionately weighted (either in theme or in the region from which the case study is drawn), which allows for a broad tour of the global themes.

Rather than attempting to make generalisations on how the past is remembered or how heritage ought to be experienced,  Heritage, Memory and Identity shows us the diverse ways these concepts are enacted across subtly and dramatically divergent contexts. This is apparent both between chapters as well as within individual chapters, such as Liz Ševenko’s chapter on sites of conscience. Ševenko describes the meeting in 1999 of the directors of nine sites of conscience. In her discussion of their meeting, held to explore how heritage sites might promote human rights, Ševenko discusses the search for common ground between the sites in question, coming as they did from markedly divergent contexts: “At the same time, the sites wanted to create a means to ensure these international standards would be continually enriched and renewed by local innovation”.

Ševenko stresses the importance of taking into account divergent contexts when grappling with questions of heritage, memory and identity and to beware of the temptation to conflate these questions and their responses under international banners. This issue is raised by a number of other authors in the volume. Dacia Viejo-Rose’s chapter on post-conflict heritage considers the reconstruction of Dresden and Gernika and asks: “Have these two cities become such potent symbols that their meaning has become divorced from their material, architectural integrity?”

In their chapter on the redevelopment of the predominantly Roma district of Sulukule in Istanbul, Aksov and Robins present an urban redevelopment in which World Heritage status is not at stake (as it is in Viejo-Rose’s Dresden example), but where economic development and gentrification, under the guise of urban renewal, take precedence over continuous habitation and community memory. This leads us to the question of whether there is such a thing as global heritage (or memory, or identity) and exactly whose ‘global’ takes precedence. In both chapters, amongst others in this volume, we are presented with the same problem of global doctrine applied to local contexts with divergent – and paradoxical – responses.
Viewed as a collection, Heritage, Memory and Identity is entirely satisfying. It offers a broad sweep of the field, whilst avoiding broad generalisations or undue emphasis on one particular region, context or mode of response. 

It strikes me that this volume - especially with the inclusion of the clearly and imaginatively presented Indicator Suites - is paritcularly suited to a teaching environment. The focus on current issues and trends alongside clearly presented and well grounded case studies will lend themselves to lively classroom debate.


Martine Hawkes is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Swinburne Institute of Social Research.

Herritage, memory, identity, edited by Helmut Anheier and Yudhishthir Raj Isar, Cultures and Globalization Series, Sage 2011

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