Book Review: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (by David Lowenthal) : BH

8/12/2001 • British Heritage Book Reviews

The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, by David Lowenthal, is published by Cambridge University Press, 40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011-4211, $17.95, paperback,1998.

At the end of the second Millennium, people of all cultural backgrounds are caught up in a booming fascination for the past. In general, the focus of this interest is not history, per se, but heritage. The distinction between the two is a major theme of David Lowenthal’s The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History.

History is a record of the past; heritage is a celebration of the past. And, Lowenthal points out, a celebration often aimed at utilizing our past, or our perceived past at least, for our own present-day purposes. This can take the form of something as benign as the mania for collecting knick-knacks, as profitable as tourist-pleasing Beefeaters, or as incendiary as the ancient racial memories used to justify Kosovos and Northern Irelands.

The past satisfies us, in part, because we imagine it to embody lost values or creeds which, if only we could recover them, would cure all our present worries. Prior to this century, this longing for “the good ole days” usually manifested itself in a mania for personal bequests or family legacies. The landed families of Britain were held in respect not just for their great wealth, but for the continuity of tradition they represented. No legacy was more treasured than an ancient title and a family seat dating back for a dozen generations. More recently, heritage has become a much more commonplace affair, with even the humblest families treasuring and preserving bits and pieces of a glorified past. The cult of heritage has grown to such extremes, said one commentator as early as 1885, that “We do not recognize for rubbish what is really rubbish.” And very literally, we fill our museums with “showpieces” consisting of other cultures’ trash.

The modern trend is in marked contrast to the attitude of many cultures that in some ways are still living in the past that we venerate. Lowenthal relates the story of an American curator’s anguish over a Native American policy of reburying relics that had been unearthed from tribal burial sites. “Why do you white people need to know all this stuff?” one Native American finally asked. “Why can’t you just let it go?”

If modern Western attitudes towards preservation are sometimes comic, they are also counterproductive. Lowenthal addresses several instances in which preservationists have been the past’s greatest enemies. The classic example is Stonehenge. Long distinguished as an unparalleled icon of England’s heritage, the ancient stone circle has been “protected” over the years by the introduction of razor wire, visitor facilties, and chain-link fencing.

This is all part of the “nationalization” of heritage–not just in Britain but throughout Europe and North America. Whereas heritage once included primarily personal objects, such as Aunt Edna’s hand-stitched quilt, it now encompasses such intangible and emotionally charged concepts as languages and past defeats or suffering, such as Pearl Harbor, Easter 1916, and the Holocaust. This demands that attention be given to the question of when heritage crosses the line from being a source of identity and pride to being the motivation for perpetuating feuds that began generations before any of the current players were born. It’s a paradox neatly summarized by another Native American quoted by Lowenthal: “White people don’t know what to remember and what to forget.”

Bruce Heydt