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

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