Some time ago, I interviewed Simon Taylor. We met at one of the creative writing courses CREA organise, and when he told me he was doing a Master’s in Heritage Studies at UvA, I grew interested. After some research, we sat down together to discuss what he studies and how the knowledge he is acquiring can easily be translated into a communication science scenario.
Amsterdam, a historical city with a deep heritage
Simon studied History and Politics at the University of Exeter. In his second year as an undergraduate, he joined a summer course on immigration and integration at UvA and took a liking to the city and the teaching style. Wanting to go abroad for his graduate studies, his previous experience, the Amsterdam’s vast heritage and its strong connection with its history made up his mind.
Given his interest in politics, history and the philosophy of history, he eventually decided to enroll in heritage studies, which he defines as “an interdisciplinary subject”. It brings aspects from various fields of knowledge, including philosophy, history, politics, archaeology, and even tourism studies.” However, the combining theme is the study of “how history is understood or used in the present world. It’s where history ends up.”
Heritage vs. History
“People have been interested in how history is remembered for as long as there has been a history, but it was hard turning it into an academic discipline.”
In any case, he warned me, the relation between history and heritage is complicated because some would argue they are contradictory: heritage studies is subjective, “it deals with how people remember”, while history “ostensibly provides an objective account”. So, many scholarly interpretations, particularly when heritage studies emerged in the late 1970s, discussed “the threat to history”. Simon, on the other hand, is quite positive we can “create a relatively objective understanding of what we believe happened and then compare it to how it was popularly perceived”, yet it would be best to understand them not as conflicting but as separate disciplines that have different study foci and only relate tangentially -just like there is no such conflict between politics and history, for instance.
“People have been interested in how history is remembered for as long as there has been a history, but it was hard turning it into an academic discipline.” In that regard, David Lowenthal’s, 1985 Past as a Foreign Country, is regarded as the foundational text of heritage studies, and could be an appropriate introduction to anyone interested.
The link between the study of heritage and communication
“A big part of analysing how history is written is focusing on who is telling it and who is reading the history, who is it for…”
“An important aspect of analysing texts about history is that, often, they claim to take a view from nowhere, whereas you would argue that is not possible.” In turn, and given the interdisciplinary nature of the study of heritage, the methods they use are varied and similar to those used in communication science, like critical discourse analysis. Communication scholars spend quite some time understanding codes and how language and meaning are decoded, and so do heritage academics: “a big part of analysing how history is written is focusing on who is telling it and who is reading the history, who is it for. For example, if the reader is addressed as ‘we’, you would be dealing with inclusive history. Often, when academics write about far-off, aboriginal cultures, the stress is on separation, on the ‘they’.”
Identifying if the audience intended for a text changes is key for their process of analysis: “we study the protean nature of discourse between the historian, the public and the object itself, which is also part of the discourse. In fact, one of the biggest debates, in practice and in wider philosophical terms, is how much can you ascertain that an object contains inherent meaning or how much that meaning is applied by the audience and by the person presenting the object.”
Understanding heritage: the curator, the public and the object
There are three actors, broadly speaking, that control the narrative-building of heritage: the curator, who holds the hegemonic power in the heritage site, the public, and the object that is being discussed, sitting between the two. There is, as always, a debate on whether these three aspects should be equal in understanding it. “Some thinkers argue that objects can have almost no meaning, being blank slates to which we apply it, while others claim there is a meaning that can be universally understood to be in them.” This controversy refers back to the idea that how an object is presented greatly influences how it is perceived.
On this note, Simon had some thoughts on the politics of museums, “there is no way to portray an object or a heritage site truly neutrally, since they always carry the ideology of the curator and the meaning ascribed to them by the visitors.”
When asked about the main factors intervening in the construction of a common heritage, Simon responded that it is constructed out of a human need to understand the world. That is why meanings change, “because, in a way, it means what we need it to mean.” We have different needs, but being the same species brings some commonalities.
Heritage, in the end, is a form of comprehension we all utilise. “It goes beyond the idea of castles and dancing traditions, it applies to social mores and we take all of this for granted in order to live and to function within it, but it is interesting to know where this originated and why we adopted it. We have to encourage our understanding forward because it can be based on an understanding that is decidedly old-fashioned that might no longer be relevant to what we need it for, but we haven’t realised.”
Mutual trust is the way forward
When facing what is presented as truthful to us from the past, honesty is key. We have this idea that we can distinguish fiction from non-fiction because “even though history is just storytelling, we have a trust in the people who write it as well as we trust governments when national galleries are opened. We accept they are honest to what they believe happened, and you have to accept to some degree that they might be wrong and they might be victims of their own unconscious biases. But if you believe what the people have been telling you, that is, how you build a strong heritage.
Misinformation and conspiracy theories are so destructive because lies are being told by sources that eventually have people thinking: ‘if I can’t trust you on that, can I trust you on this?’. The audience must trust the authority just as the people in authority must trust their audience as capable of understanding.”
Cover: Unsplash/Tamara Menzi/ Final Editor: Erica Boyce