Exploring the concept of heritage from below.

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The developing field of critical heritage studies has been predicated in the main upon the belief that heritage, as social and cultural product, has been deployed in the service of dominant and hegemonic discourses often relating to national identity constructions but also to power relations. This represents a considerable advance on the polemical and somewhat unsubtle early adopters of the culturally-informed reading of the late twentieth century turn towards heritage. These views swung wildly between pessimistic and optimistic understandings of the utilisation of the past in the present. And only with the pioneering work of LauraJane Smith did heritage studies reach a more mature stage and useful model in the form of her 'authorised heritage discourse', counterpoised with 'subaltern heritage'. It is nevertheless the view taken by this current paper that a perspective taken entirely from below reveals a hitherto 'hidden from heritage' layer of the use of the past in the present. It is this perspective, and the resultant concept, that this paper intends to adopt.

This conceptualisation draws on the view that heritage is a social and cultural construct and on Gramsci’s notion of ‘counter hegemony’ to recognise both a hitherto under explored category of heritage discourse and, on a more practical level, an opportunity and possibility. Gramsci's formulation rests upon the development and expression of an alternative world view to the hegemonic. If we accept that the heritage is constructed by those who have the power to do the constructing this leaves a gap for the possibility of the assertion of alternative and counter forms of heritage. This, I term ‘heritage from below’. Drawing very obvious inspiration from the ‘history from below’ movement, the concept encompasses a number of the forms foregrounded by this movement, not least oral histories and popular memory. Similarly also the view taken is that heritage from below is most often found in or drawing on expressions of resistance or memory of resistance amongst the dominated.

A final strand of this paper will rests on the assertion that much of the literature on the relationship between heritage and identity has, rightly, been focussed on national identity. And yet identity is made and maintained at a local scale, through local networks of belonging. Only rarely has the relationship between heritage and local identity been explored in the academic literature despite the fact that for many it is this relationship and a sense of local identity that is the more 'real'. This relationship between heritage and local identity, moreover, is to be found also at the centre of the more practical manifestations of the concept of heritage from below. This conceptualisation, then, proposes the recognition of the expression and utilisation from below of a sense of inheritance from the past which can feed into the processes of the making and maintaining of a sense of local identity at odds to other, dominant registers of identity. Ultimately the suggestion will be made that the deployment of heritage from below can be a tool of empowerment amongst local communities.

Iain Robertson has recently been appointed as Reader in History at the University of the Highlands and Islands. Iain’s research has followed two distinct strands in recent years. The first explores the social and cultural processes that got into the making of the rural landscape of the Highlands of Scotland in the early twentieth century and acts of land disturbances in particular.

The second set of interests lies in the field of heritage studies and with the very recent upsurge in critical thinking around the ways the past is put to use in the present. Robertson’s focus here is on the development of the concept of ‘heritage from below’ and the contested meanings of heritage as made evident in acts of memorialisation (in the Scottish Highlands in particular). He has published extensively in this area; most recently the edited collection Heritage From Below (Ashgate, 2013) which attracted a group of highly respected international authors. He is shortly to edit a second collection, with colleagues from the Universities of Exeter and Curtin (Western Australia), this time entitled Environments of Heritage.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages3
Publication statusUnpublished - 2016
EventThe Australian Historical Association annual conference - Victoria; Australia, Ballarat, United Kingdom
Duration: 4 Jul 20168 Jul 2016


ConferenceThe Australian Historical Association annual conference
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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