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The Heritage Sector and the Problem of the Constructed Identity

2 February 17 words: Paul Grossman

An essay on the way heritage and culture should be collated and presented inclusively in a modern age without leaning towards nostalgia…

In 1987 Robert Hewiston coined the phrase “heritage industry” to describe to the commercialisation and glorification of a false historical legacy given to the British public after the Second World War. Hewiston believed that the sanitisation of history via British heritage allowed for an untruthful version of the past, and stifled public interest in contemporary art and culture. This perpetuated the myth that Britain was a nation in decay. Quite simply, “in the face of apparent decline and disintegration, it is not surprising that the past seems a better place.”

In 2017, following the decision for Britain to withdraw from the European Union, the continuing problematic economics of 2008, and the very real potential of Scottish independence, Hewiston’s concept of a nation in decline has brought itself back to the forefront of British politics. With claims of a “lost generation” and the possible break up of the United Kingdom, it’s hard not to take a bleak outlook.

Nevertheless, Hewiston outlined a way to end the crisis of nostalgia; we must find the ‘true’ history he argued, recognise its faults and build on them in an innovative and sustainable way. The past wasn’t all great, but that’s okay. Reinterpreting how we explore heritage “must be a collaborative process shared by an open community which accepts both conflict and change.” For the heritage industry to actively build Britain’s future, not stifle it, the sector must welcome the novel, and do so for everyone, and with everyone. Enter Culture Syndicates.

Culture Syndicates is a community interest company which provides specialist advice and assistance to heritage organisations under a two-fold sustainable development plan: building employability for young professionals and developing resilience across the sector to achieve best practice. In short, Culture Syndicates helps heritage organisations to be the most innovative and sustainable version of themselves they can be. Hewiston would be proud.

One of their most successful ventures to date is the Life Lines project, which supported amateur historians to care for, preserve and share their personal World War I collections. After releasing a book of their work, they created three handling boxes to engage Key Stage 3 pupils with the stories of their ancestors. The school’s handling box is particularly original as it utilises all the senses to bring the First World War into the classroom without the need of a textbook.

Unlike many long-established British museums, Life Lines has intentionally broken away from the traditional narrative of the plucky young soldier by using the uncomfortable real life accounts of those who took part, thus ensuring that the history learned is both true and communally built. Not only this, the scheme is currently expanding beyond military history, to construct a more all-encompassing socially inclusive view of the past with additional content on women, children and a diversity of faith groups and nationalities.

In this respect, Culture Syndicates is actively helping construct Hewiston’s vision of what British Heritage could achieve. There is no glorification of the past, it is flatly accepted for its faults; yet as a regional community, the Life Lines project is creatively bringing these truths to a new generation to foster cross generational links and a positive forward thinking attitude towards Britain’s future.

Culture Syndicates is not alone in challenging the crisis of nostalgia. Leicester City Museum in particular left me awestruck at how they have transformed this year’s premier league victory by Leicester City into an engaging exhibit. Just to set the record straight, I don’t like football and I have never liked football, much to the annoyance of my Liverpudlian family. For the hour or so I was there, this museum convinced me I did.

The first floor had been converted to look like you are entering a stadium, vibrant displays on the wall parade the local affection and engagement with the club, and to my delight, a section of the museum was left aside for the club’s fascinating links with Thailand. This is not the museum of the past whereby ‘interesting’ objects are placed in glass boxes for high society to stare at. This is the future of the heritage sector, innovative and sustainable, reaching out to all corners of the globe and instilling in Leicester’s next generation the idea that success belongs to those who’s outlook is to their community and beyond.

Both Life Lines and the exhibition at Leicester City Museum are a reminder that Hewiston was right about the essential point of it all. “As individuals, our security and identity depend largely on the knowledge we have of our personal and family history.” How we interpret our heritage, dictates the sort of community we aim to be. What actually happened in the past doesn’t matter too much per se, but rather our relationship with how we present it.

The heritage sector can play a key role in defining how the next generation will identify if it is prepared to take up the mantel of the visionary. Will they, as Hewiston saw in the eighties, look back at the noughties and nineties as a golden age preceding a declining Britain, or will they acknowledge and build on the fractious mistakes of recent times and construct a new British identity built on innovation, sustainability, and a global outlook?

Life Lines website
Culture Syndicates website


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