Heritage Significance – what is it and who does it belong to?

Professional Associations


2Simon and Ashley (2010) write that reduced to its simplest terms; heritage refers to the contemporary activities through which the past comes to matter in the present. Most of us think and speak about heritage as a reference to a social framework of institutions and practices that select, conserve and present the fabric of the past inclusive of intangible traces. Judgments are made as to which particular aspects of the past are worthy of conservation and are of potential significance for social memory. Institutions of heritage and the practices they organise are merely attempts to embody through landscape, artefact, text and performance, something of the story and spirit of a social entity whether defined as an all-embracing notion of humankind or limited to a particular nation, region, religion or ethno-cultural group.

Heritage practices are practices of recognition and proprietorship. They are practices ultimately assessed in relation to a felt sense of belonging to the story and spirit of the social entity being expressed through the activity of heritage (Hall 2005). It ends up constituting a form of property relation signalling that a particular set of stories, songs, artefacts or texts belong to somebody or some group. This engenders concerns regarding the rights and responsibilities of proprietorship.

3Waterson & Watson (2013) maintain that ‘theories in heritage continue to flood the field today, especially so within specifically tourism-focused thought, where concerns with effective heritage management and the means of achieving it remain paramount. People, often imagined in isolation from their social contexts, are in this frame seen as consumers, tourists or more vaguely, visitors’.

The Association of Critical Heritage Studies (ACHS) which is a network of scholars and researchers working in the field of heritage and museum studies has adopted a manifesto which constitutes a challenge to the received wisdom of what heritage is. By drawing on wider intellectual sources, it questions the conservative cultural and economic power relations that outdated understandings of heritage underpin. It invites the active participation of people and communities which have been marginalised in the creation and management of 4heritage to become more involved (ACHS website). To a certain extent, it apologises for those groups left out on the fringes of mainstream heritage constructions of the past.

ACHS maintains that ‘the study of heritage has historically been dominated by Western, predominantly European, experts in archaeology, history, architecture and art history. Though there have been progressive currents in these disciplines, they sustain a limited idea of what heritage is and how it should be studied and managed. The old way of looking at heritage – the Authorised Heritage Discourse – privileges old, grand, prestigious, expert approved sites, buildings and artefacts that sustain Western narratives of nation, class and science. ACHS claims that there is now enough sustained dissatisfaction with this way of thinking about heritage that its critics can feel confident in coming together to form an international organisation to promote new ways of thinking about and doing heritage’ (ACHS website).

Blake writes (2000) writes that ‘the increasing global importance of cultural heritage instruments and the ever-expanding scope of the term and the areas in which it is used require a workable definition of the nature of the cultural heritage. Each such expansion introduces much more complex issues concerning the nature of cultural heritage and the construction of cultural identity than were apparent in earlier developments in this field. The danger therefore exists of creating future international instruments which extend the range of the term without having settled on a clear understanding of its meaning as employed in existing texts’.

Cheape, Garden & McLean (2009) write that ‘it is long acknowledged that there is a critical connection of place and identity and that many of our experiences and engagement with memory and identity are located within our broader surroundings—with our environment. Whilst, at first glance, suggesting a reliance on the material elements of the past the notion of heritage and heritage construction ise, much more nuanced. Heritage, says Laurajane Smith, is not a thing, it is not a site, building or any other material object; rather, she goes on to say, it is a social construction; heritage itself is a cultural process of engaging and experiencing.

Thus, heritage can mean many different things to many different people depending on where they come from and what environment they are in. In addition, official narratives are prone to marginalise less apparent narratives. Heritage is after all a social based construction highly dependent upon locale and usage.

Paul Rappoport – Heritage 21 – 21 May 2015


  • ACHS website
  • Blake, J., On Defining the Cultural Heritage(s): The International and Comparative Law Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Jan., 2000), pp. 61-85
  • Cheape, H., Garden, M. & McLean, F., (2009), Editorial: Heritage and the Environment. International Journal of Heritage Studies Vol. 15, Nos. 2–3, pp. 104–107
  • Hall, S. (2005), Whose heritage? Un-settling ‘the heritage,’ re-imagining the post-nation. In: J. Littler and R. Naidoo, eds. The politics of heritage: the legacies of race. New York: Routledge, 23–35.
  • Simon R., & Ashley S., (2010): Heritage and practices of public formation, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 16:4-5, 247-254
  • Smith, L. Uses of Heritage. Abingdon: Routledge, 2006.
  • Waterton, E. & Watson, S, (2013) Framing theory: towards a critical imagination in heritage studies, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 19:6, 546-561


View some of our related videos:

Related Articles

The theory of cultural built heritage

How do we define cultural built heritage? What is culture and what is heritage? Where does the idea of conservation…

Read more
Character Enshrined as Heritage Overlays in LEPs

Christine Covington of Corrs, Chambers, Westgarth Lawyers writes (7 March 2018) about proposed new changes to the EP&A Act in…

Read more
New Approaches to Heritage Planning

Heritage can basically be anything and exist anywhere. It can also be personal and collective as well as local and…

Read more
Do you have what it takes to be a Heritage Consultant?

According to the 1993 ICOMOS Education & Training Guidelines - Article 5; conservation works should only be entrusted to persons…

Read more
Need help getting started?

Check out our guides.

Heritage – are we losing the battle?

Since the robust days of the 1970s and the 1980s during which NSW governments and councils committed wholeheartedly and enthusiastically…

Read more
Five things you need to know about cultural built heritage

Having worked in the heritage space for the better part of thirty years, I have come to rely upon five…

Read more
Incentivising Ownership of Heritage Buildings

In response to the recent enquiry by the government relating to the NSW Heritage Act, I made the following recommendation.…

Read more


Complete the form below to contact us today.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
By signing in you agree with the Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy