British Archaeology, no 21, February 1997: Comment


`Heritage' and the end of responsibility

The study and care of Britain's past requires more than Lottery money, writes Richard Morris

`Heritage' was once a decent word with a clear meaning - that which is or might be inherited. More recently the word has become a flabby catch-all, a term applied indiscriminately to almost anything connected with the past. For the Department of National Heritage's purposes - which embrace topics as diverse as archaeology, football and opera - even the concept of time has been leached out.

Slapdash usage is a miasma which deprives us - you and me - of the wherewithal to discuss things we care about, or argue for their improvement. David Lowenthal is ever alert to such matters, and in his new book The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Viking, £25.00) he examines distinctions between heritage and history.

Heritage, much empirical evidence tells him, is modern invention - it is the manufacture, packaging and promotion of a product. History is modern too (because its pursuit takes place in present minds) but unlike heritage it subsists in enquiry. Heritage is a product - consumer-driven, it bobs along in the currents and eddies of popular taste and commercial opportunity. History is a search for understanding, which respects the dignity and discipline of sources.

Conservation might be seen as a boundary where history and heritage meet. A replacement moulding, a lime mortar mix, a monument faithfully repaired for the enjoyment or instruction of visitors are works of today, and therefore in some sense `heritage'. At the same time they are, or should be, answering to history. Heritage is always at risk from venality; history's stimulus is honesty and (as far as we can attain it) impartiality of mind. Now, as Roger Scruton asked in a recent review in The Times of Lowenthal's book: 'If heritage is a matter of manufacturing the past for popular consumption, how do we know that history is not another product of the heritage industry? '

The capture of history by heritage would be a calamity, and one would like to think that the Departments of Education and Heritage are alert to it. Whether they are, however, is complicated by the extent to which the Government has delegated responsibilities. Bodies with a Government- assigned historical function (that is, the study, interpretation or stewardship of archaeological evidence) are now legion. On the archaeological side alone they include a constellation of national agencies, the British Academy, universities, commercial developers, the Highways Agency, hundreds of local authorities, and other Government departments.

Some of these bodies have different, even conflicting agendas. On the other hand, downloading and dispersal might offer advantages, one of them being that points of need and of responsibility are brought closer together. To realise these advantages, however, the constellation must remain stable while we learn to navigate it, and the universe needs a known Creator to whom we can appeal. Instead, the Creator has largely abdicated while into the firmament has streaked a comet with an awesome new gravitational field - the Lottery, trailing millions upon millions of pounds to be distributed by (among others) the National Heritage Lottery Fund.

Down the years conservation agencies, local authorities and the Government itself have painstakingly defined priorities for the study and care of Britain's historic environment, and built up expertise to realise them. If some of the priorities were debatable, we knew with whom to debate them. The Lottery threatens to distort the priorities and to bypass, or (in due course) wasefully duplicate the expertise. The Government won't admit it, but one reason why (as predicted) certain parts of the history/ heritage sector took a beating in the recent Budget was because there is now a vague supposition in the Cabinet that `heritage' (whatever that is) is now `taken care of' by the Lottery.

And yet, of course, it isn't. We have already reached the absurd position where local authorities are entering elephantine bids for heritage projects while being unable to employ trained staff to discharge routine conservation responsibilities. This is not a complaint about the availability of Lottery funds; it is a warning about the consequences of a policy which, however well intended, is placing history at the mercy of heritage. The contingency should be the other way about. The challenge lies in arguing this with a vocabulary of inconstant meanings, in an ideological environment where ideals have wilted, with a Government for whom `public responsibility' towards history has become a notion of uncertain anchorage.

The Department of National Heritage was conceived at the last general election. It is open to Britain's archaeological community to identify the policies it would like to see after the next. The CBA's Council is the forum in which such a statement can be debated and crystallised; the Council's General Meeting later this month will be the occasion. Do come, and give your views.

Richard Morris is the Director of the CBA. The CBA's AGM will be held in the Merchant Adventurers' Hall, York, 27 February, 1.30pm.


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© Council for British Archaeology, 1997