“The past events are more remote from our senses than the stars of the remotest galaxies, whose own light at least still reaches the telescope.”[i]
Historic sites are inherited physical places that inform contemporaries about the past. Being able to see and experience historic buildings instills pride in one’s history as well as acting as a place of social exchange between community members, drawing people closer together. Heritage refers to the way history is presented when visiting historic sites. It is dynamic in the sense that elements of the past are added and/or removed to adhere to modern day sensibilities. If heritage is only seen through the eyes of its contemporaries, is it possible to have an authentic historical experience? This post will provide a discussion to showcase how heritage is socially, politically and economically constructed. The argument will be made that heritage only offers a simulacrum of the past; thus an authentic historical experience is not something that can be totally realized.
Intimately Linked: Heritage and the Economy
Historically oriented sites are often created to capitalize on heritage tourism and nostalgia for the past. Sociologist Diane Barthel opined that, “[h]istory is no longer mined for images and ideas that can be associated with commodities. Like the rest of culture, history is being bought and sold.”[ii] Barthel’s statement shows the intimate connection between heritage sites and tourism. Elements of the past are chosen or disregarded, partly as a means for creating “camera-worthy” moments for tourists. Ian McKay felt, quite rightly, that history is presented for the “tourists gaze.”[iii] Heritage construction occurs because people like to imagine a “golden age.” This reality eloquently speaks about “a dependant society confronting the massive cultural changes incorporated in “modernity.”[iv] Cultural changes result in heightened anxieties; heritage offers a window into a “simpler” time.
Presenting heritage as means to appeal to tourists has caused some scholars to criticize heritage experiences. David Herbert states that “as the numbers who visit places increases and the majority of tourists become less ‘cultured’ [and] educated, there are fewer who understand these sites without elaborate presentations such as reconstructions of historic buildings or living history programs.”[v] Similarly, Robert Hewison comments that, “when people who have no understanding of history in depth seek out historically related sites, they are not given actual history, but instead are offered a contemporary creation, more costume drama and re-enactment than critical discourse.”[vi] In his discussion of heritage and authenticity, Michael Kelleher opined that these comments show that, “contrived historical preservations are intended to be tools to educate people who do not have a grasp of history…but are created in an attempt to attract tourists and their dollars.”[vii] Simply put, heritage presentations commodify the past rather than offer intimate understandings of it.
Sanitizing the Past: How Social and Political Factors Inform Heritage
A defining feature of heritage is that it creates important symbolic representations of identity. Heritage can be used to empower or marginalize groups of people by including or excluding them from the meta-narrative. Thus, heritage is politicized when groups struggle for power. For instance, the case of the Sainte-Marie-among-the Huron’s heritage site states that it is culturally important to Ontario because it was the first settlement. This statement discredits the fact that the Wendat First Nation was in the region long before the European Jesuit settlers.[viii] Essentially, it declares that the Wendat do not fit into Ontario’s dominant narrative. This example shows how history is presented (as heritage), and how groups’ views about historic places differ. In this case, Ontario’s heritage is presented within a Eurocentric model.
Heritage is constantly updated to ensure it fits contemporary ideals. David Lowenthal declares, “[w]hat endears the heritage is not the finished form but the long process of forging it. Its potency derives from being both ancient and responsive to present needs.”[ix] As one example, there was a debate about whether Franklin Roosevelt’s Washington memorial should show him as crippled (as is demanded by the disabled) or if his crutches and wheelchair should be concealed (as he usually did.)[x] This example shows how heritage is crafted to enhance admirable aspects of the past while ridiculing parts deemed distasteful. Any history presented has been carefully “refashioned” and only retains a semblance of the past.
Authenticity: [Re]Creating the Past
The concept of authenticity is complex since it can be defined in numerous ways. Heritage scholar Jeremy Wells states that authenticity is traditionally defined “through an objective analysis of extant building or landscape fabric,” i.e. if the building materials of a historic site have remained original.[xi] This logic dictates that if there are newly introduced materials the existing fabric lacks authenticity. Wells offers another way of viewing authenticity. He believes authentic experiences have a connection to ideas or meanings rather than fabric. To offer an example, a one thousand year old temple in Japan has very little of its original fabric, but cultural ideas are embodied in its added construction material.[xii] Thus, it is the ideas and physical space being preserved rather than the original fabric. This definition offers a sophisticated look at the complex nature of authenticity but fails to discuss how ideas change over time. Ideas about historic sites change with each generation and as different groups struggle for position within the narrative. Authenticity, then, is also crafted by public attitudes. Older meanings are cast aside and deemed “incorrect” or “undesirable” to make way for contemporary ideas. These new ideas then become “authentic”, while the old ones are seen as “outdated” and “inaccurate.”
Heritage presents history to its viewers through modern-day lenses. It is carefully crafted to fit contemporary ideals, highlighting what is deemed admirable while disregarding or changing what is considered distasteful. This is done for economic, political and social reasons. Heritage and tourism are intimately tied. History is “mined” for information and images that are considered appealing, to attract tourist dollars. The heritage narrative is powerful and legitimizes or marginalizes certain groups in society. Heritage is often a struggle for recognition in the story being presented. If the story is constantly changing, then it is impossible to capture and present an authentic historical experience. Because of these changes, authenticity is also something presented through modern guises. What is authentic today will be considered “outdated” tomorrow; then a new authentic historical experience will emerge, casting older “truths” to the wayside.
[i] George Kubler, The Shape of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), 42-43.
[ii] Michael Kelleher. “Images of the Past: Historical Authenticity and Inauthenticity from Disney to Times Square.” CRM: Journal of Heritage Stewardship 1, no. 2 (Summer 2004)
[iii] Ian McKay. “History and the Tourist Gaze: The Politics of Commemoration in Nova Scotia, 1935-1964.” Acadiensis 22, no. 2 (Spring 1993), 102.
[iv] Ibid., 104.
[v] Michael Kelleher. “Images of the Past: Historical Authenticity and Inauthenticity from Disney to Times Square.”
[viii] Alan Gordon. “Heritage and Authenticity: The Case of Ontario’s Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons.” Canadian Historical Review 85, no. 3 (September 2004), 518.
[ix] David Lowenthal. “The Practice of Heritage.” In The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, 2nd ed., 148–172, 273–278. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006., 151.
[x] Ibid., 151.
[xi] Jeremy C.Wells. “Authenticity in More than One Dimension: Reevaluating a Core Premise of Historic Preservation.” Forum Journal 24, no. 3 (Spring 2010), 36.
[xii] Ibid. 37.