Reading portfolio. Essay Example

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Reading Portfolio: Two Articles on Heritage


The concept of heritage is important to society because it transcends time and gives those in the present a peek at the past reminding them where they came from and how far they have come. Despite the significance of heritage to the present, not everyone is concerned or even aware of it because the task of conserving and maintaining heritage is shouldered by the state with the assistance of heritage experts. It is, therefore, interesting to read insights on the developments in this area and various writers view the present efforts towards heritage conservation and maintenance. Some of these perspectives are considered in the following pages through the articles written by Denis Byrne entitled ‘Heritage as a Social Action’ and Rodney Harrison’s article ‘What is Heritage?’

  1. Heritage as a Social Action’ by Denis Byrne

As can be gleaned from the title of his article, Byrne’s main focus is to present heritage as a product primarily of social attachments rather than proceeding from historical, cultural or archaeological background. Although heritage is associated with culture, culture itself is not a static thing capable of being conserved, but a dynamic and evolving state which is being invented, reinvented, added on and personalised as they are passed from one generation to the next. Byrne’s point then is that heritage, just like culture, exists beyond the material structure of places, edifices, artifacts and objects and is made meaningful because of the meaning that people attached to them. To Byrne, it is not the structure, place or object per se that makes them heritage, but the meaning that people came to ascribe to them. This common practice of regarding heritage as structural, rather than social, is encouraged by the existence of different factions contesting their own version of what constitutes heritage as well as the failure to see it as connected patterns associated with people and not as isolated points in history. In addition, this tendency to ignore the social significance of heritage is engendered by the heritage conservation paradigm, a paradigm that stresses the conservation and commodification of heritage promoting them as materials or objects. Nonetheless, the current trend of regarding heritage is to view them as social action prompted by the acknowledgment of culture as a dynamic and evolving landscape (Byrne 2007).

Although Byrne’s points make so much sense, a problem necessarily arises when emphasis on social attachment is made the primary underpinning element in determining heritage. Social attachment as indicated by Byrne is essentially subjective, which implies that in evaluating heritage one must take into account the significant attachment, meaning and importance ascribed by people to the heritage. But as Byrne himself emphasised, the cultural landscape is altered from generation to generation as succeeding generations reinvent, add to and personalise the usual customs, practices and traditions handed to them by the previous generation. The difficulty arises, therefore, in determining the exact various meanings and attributions people from various generations would attach to places, objects and edifices. One generation, for example, may ascribe utility to a specific artifact, but generations down later, such an artifact may be given religious connotation. Placing premium on social significance over historical and archaeological associations in determining heritage is, therefore, not only a difficult and laborious process, but may also prove to be potentially fraught with inaccuracies. This is in contrast with giving emphasis on its historical value where documentation and historical accounts can easily support the determination of its heritage, without losing sight that history and heritage are two different concepts. To submit willingly to Byrne’s theory of heritage would just simply reinforce the revulsion of anti-heritage writers, such as Hewison (1987), who saw heritage as clearly lacking the objectivity and critical position of history and Lowenthal (1998), who regarded heritage as exploitative of the past by fashioning it to serve present purpose (cited Dicks 2000). Byrne’s work is, however, thought-provoking and enlightening and hence, effectively challenges common notions of heritage as well as persuasive in directing readers to view heritage from a fresh perspective.

  1. What is Heritage?’ by Rodney Harrison

Harrison’s article provides an introduction to the whole notion of heritage. He does this by providing various definitions of the word, identifying the objects it usually encompasses, the common notions associated with it, the entities supporting and maintaining it including, repositories or lists identifying the various heritage in the world, and the various developments, theories and ideas relative to heritage. Harrison’s main concern, however, is to introduce to the reader the two contending models that are at play and are influential in the development of heritage, especially in the development of the so-called heritage industry as coined by Hewison in the 1980s. By ‘heritage industry’, Hewison refers to the ‘sanitisation and commercialisation to the version of the past produced as heritage’ (cited in Harrison 2010, p. 16) particularly applying to the UK case. These forces, according to him, use two different processes in dealing with the idea of heritage. On one hand, is the so-called AHD model (short for Authorised Heritage Discourse), which is purported to be the dominant discourse in the western world on heritage. The AHD model follows a rigid set of rules concerning heritage for the purpose of stabilising and regulating heritage with emphasis on the ascendancy of the state and heritage experts. On the other hand, marginalised scholars that do not belong to the ranks of the state and heritage experts employ an approach that is less rigid and objective whilst encompassing subjective concepts such as identity, society and community — in short the same social action model that Byrne (2008) is advocating. Harrison’s concern is that the rigidity and exclusivity of the AHD model may be too influential in determining matters relevant to the conservation of heritage and the manner in which conservation is done not only on the national level, but will eventually filter down to the local level, that the intangible aspects of heritage might be ignored and forever lost.

Harrison’s article has laid down substantial and compelling proof to substantiate his concerns that the AHD model is dominating the way heritage is being determined, maintained and conserved. This state of things regarding heritage should, thus, be a cause of concern because it would mean ultimately that important heritage that are not structures, monuments, edifices and physical or material things may be ignored in the conservation process and will forever be forgotten. When only the dominant sector of society is given the ability to call the shots, as in the case of AHD, the grave possibility exists that some very important voice in the minority with a substantial thing to say will never be heard. This is the danger of elitism or exclusivity, which exists not only in the field of heritage, but in other spheres as well.


As can be gleaned from the two articles, there are various insights relative to the choice, conservation and maintenance of heritage. It is interesting to note that even heritage is not spared from politics and controversies. Contending forces with opposing views on how to approach the subject exist as they do in the hallways of the Parliament, in television talk shows and in corporate conference rooms. It is unfortunate, however, that a subject such as heritage, which is relevant to the lives of every human being is relatively unnoticed by the general public, otherwise, their voices would have been given weight in deciding matters relevant to heritage.


Byrne, D 2007, ‘Heritage as a social action’ in G Fairclough, R Harrison, J Schofield and J Jameson, Jr (eds.) The heritage reader, 2007, pp. 149-173.

Dicks, B 2000. Heritage, place and community. Cardiff, University of Wales Press.

Harrison, R 2010, ‘What is heritage?’ in R Harrison (ed.) Understanding the politics of heritage. Manchester University Press.

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