Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Invited Seminar on Authorized Heritage Discourse

Dr. Laurajane SMITH
Constrained by Commonsense: 
Authorized Heritage Discourse and its Implications for the Study of Heritage 
17th February, 2012 

Ms. Ah Li CHEUNG with Dr. Laurajane SMITH
“There is no such thing as heritage.” That was a powerful, yet controversial statement made by Dr. Laurajane Smith during a seminar held on 17th February 2012. One of the most discussed topics in recent heritage studies falls back to the question of what heritage is. Smith gave a seminar on this topic based on her research findings in different fieldsites in England, Australia and the United States explaining the concept and interpretation of heritage. Seeing heritage as embedded governmental agency is a way of understanding heritage.

Smith shed light on the conception of heritage by introducing the history and nature of the western “authorized heritage discourse.” A discourse is a way of representing the world and making society meaningful. According to Smith, heritage is a set of cultural symbols indicating national or universal values. The imagination of heritage is a site that is grand, old, and aesthetically pleasing. Through these sites, national identity is constructed and reinforced. Smith mentioned the country houses in England as a typical example of the western authorized heritage discourse. Visitors reflected that they felt comfortable at the site and believed that it is the representation of English history. During their visit, they constitute a sense of self and relate the site to their own history even though these sites only represented the history of the elites in England. The country houses represent a sense of national identity and a sense of being middle class for the visitor, and hence created the feeling of pride and comfort for the visitors during their experiences at the site.

In contrast, Smith also raised the issues of “dark heritage” encountering the authorized heritage discourse. She illustrated this with the funding of exhibitions on the topic of the abolition of slavery. Some museums were celebrating the abolition as a moral victory which was challenged by Africans in Britain. Consequently, other museums attempted to reveal the history of slavery, a part of history that has been ignored in England. The African British engaged actively in the exhibition and felt a sense of recognition of their history. However, other visitors kept themselves emotionally distanced from the exhibition and denied it is a part of their own history. She added this is not happening only in England, but also in Australia, where the history of aboriginal children taken from their families is not acknowledged by society. The seminar concluded that the idea of dissonant and dark heritage is a failure as it reveals a part of history that the majority of people do not recognize and do not take as a part of their own heritage and history.

Last but not least, Smith’s seminar was very inspiring in the way that it questioned the common understanding of heritage as something beautiful and grand and showed the failure of dissonant heritage because people resist the idea. Her definition of authenticity is very stimulating as she emphasizes the feelings of visitors as they experience heritage. If the emotion feels real and intense, the heritage experience is considered to be authentic. The seminar showed the concept of heritage and the implications that the authorized heritage discourse has for the study of heritage. Heritage is not reducible to a ‘thing’ or ‘place’, but a set of emotions, values, meanings, and experiences that people associate with it.

M.Phil Candidate

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Meeting with Students: Heritage Issues

Dr. Laurajane SMITH
17th February, 2012

“Meeting all the students was the best part of this trip,” Smith commented after her first Hong Kong visit. In the afternoon on 17th February, Smith gathered around a table with Professor Tracey Lu and five other postgraduate students to discuss a number of heritage related topics when Smith had a chance to get to know and share her insights about students’ research topics.

The almost two hour long meeting was very enjoyable for everyone. Students were very enthusiastic in raising different questions as well as stimulating some controversial debates concerning many aspects of heritage studies. Some of the discussed issues include the mission of UNESCO in cultural heritage management, the relationship between memory and heritage, the functions of heritage, “authorized heritage discourse,” capitalism and heritage, the question of authenticity, and the role of community participation in heritage preservation.

Even though many topics have been covered during the meeting, the discussion followed mainly two directions: heritage and the past, and uses of heritage. When being questioned about what the past is, Dr. Smith highlights the domination of the West, mainly referring to Europe, in the construction of history. Many ICOMOS experts are Eurocentric. Therefore, many heritage sites of the world outside Europe are unrecognized and de-privileged. The example of the UNESCO world heritage list is further evidence. Some students said that there is no way out of the situation with the domination of Western power, but Smith saw the Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention signed by UNESCO in 2003 as a good signal for the underrepresented countries to show the world their heritage masterpieces. 

The debate over the uses of heritage is mainly a struggle between the state and the community. As Smith declares, “all heritage is dissonant.” All heritage involves different groups of stakeholders and conflicts are inevitable for any sort of heritage. She stresses that in the past, the community was the one that is ignored and marginalized. But there has been a dynamic change that the community gains more power in negotiating with the government and gets legitimized by the nation in many cases. 

The meeting did not only discuss the broad understanding and theories of heritage studies; Smith said that she also enjoyed learning about postgraduates’ research projects. Many of the students who attended the meeting are conducting heritage-related topics, such as the Blue House community museum in Hong Kong, the preservation of a Tang lineage heritage, and the Cantonese Opera music community in Guangzhou. Smith gave many valuable comments on students’ research and the students have learnt a lot from her. The atmosphere of the whole meeting was very relaxed and warm. Two hours seemed very short and the meeting ended with laughter.

Cheung, Ah Li
M.Phil Candidate

Invited Seminar: All Heritage is Intangible

Dr. Laurajane SMITH
All Heritage is Intangible
15th February 2012

With the sponsorship of the Genling World Heritage Foundation, the Department of Anthropology invited Dr. Smith to present her lecture entitled, “All heritage is intangible”. The lecture consisted of two parts: first Dr. Smith theorized heritage, and then presented some findings of her long-term research which developed her ideas of what is heritage. The focus of the lecture was to examine how heritage is constructed and how the meanings of heritage are consistently negotiated by people in various cultures and contexts.

According to UNESCO (a heritage-making body), cultural heritage is defined as human-created remains that represent unique cultures of the past, which includes tangible and intangible heritage. Dr. Smith reminded us heritage is very often understood as something “old” and beautiful, and can be measured and judged by experts, and listed, such as on the UNESCO World Heritage list. But according to Dr. Smith, this is not really heritage. In fact, she claimed, “There is no such thing as heritage.” Dr. Smith points out that heritage is not a frozen moment in material form, but a moment of actions incorporated with a range of meanings; heritage is subjective political negotiation and identity making. Although UNESCO gives a universal definition of cultural heritage, heritage has been consistently (re)created by human beings in accordance with a range of contemporary needs and concerns in their societies. Dr. Smith, however, argued that all heritage is intangible in the sense that it (re)constructs social and cultural meanings, and that make sense only in the present form and through our identity in a given place.

Dr. Smith provided supporting data from her large-scale, long-term research on museums and heritage sites in the US, Britain and Australia, to argue that the hegemonic discourse about heritage can be challenged by visitors. The authorized heritage discourse is dominated by Western Europe; heritage-making bodies such as UNESCO and ICOMOS promote a set of Western values of heritage and make them universally applicable. Dr. Smith criticized the authorized definition of heritage. It not only constrains our understanding of heritage, but also affects society, as heritage is related to social inclusion and exclusion. To illustrate this point, she noted that people visiting museums and heritage sites would often see through or even reject the official understanding of heritage, such as the official point of view legitimizing nationhood, selectively chosen by the so-called “experts.” Although the national heritage sites and museum are often used for political reasons, those cultural institutions do not and cannot really control how the visitors think, perceive and make sense of what they see. People are subjective beings and active agents adopting different ways to make or unmake heritage. Visitors’ own cultural background and their different levels of emotional involvement affect what messages the visitors take away from the heritage and how they make sense of the heritage.

Dr. Smith concluded the lecture that heritage is a cultural embodiment. It is a cultural process related to gender, ethnicity, nationhood and identity construction. So, what about the non-native visitors, how do they interpret the heritage in specific places? Is the concept of heritage still important if everything is a construction? Dr. Smith’s research is important for helping us see the cultural construction of heritage. Her lecture demonstrates how heritage can be used as an analytical framework to understand cultural change, especially how people connect with the past and create a range of meanings for the present through choosing certain ideas and images, such as those seen in the museums, to reinforce knowledge of themselves and the places they identify with.

Chan, Hiu Ling
MPhil Candidate

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Invited Seminar: 伊斯蘭教本土化研究的意義

Prof. DING Hong 丁宏教授 
Dean of the School of Ethnology and Sociology at the Minzu University of China
中央民族大學, 民族學與社會學學院教授、院長.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Seminars, Spring '12

Please click here to view this semester's seminars hosted by the Anthropology Department.

Unless otherwise mentioned, seminars take place between 12.30-2.00pm in Room 401, Humanities Building, New Asia College, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

You are welcome to bring your lunch to eat during the talk.

There is no registration required, and all who are interested, are welcome!