Heritage and Politics

The political function of heritage underpins its other economic, educational, and development applications.

Heritage, in its guise inexorably linked with identity, plays a particularly powerful and versatile role in politics. Because heritage establishes historic background and longevity of modern identities, heritage is crucial in identity formation, adaptation, reinvention, obliteration, and continuation. The fact that heritage is often represented by tangible objects paves the way for materialization of politics: emblems on stamps, colors on flags, and the creation of legends.

Depending on the goal of the rhetorician, political actors can wield heritage as a malleable tool to their various purposes. Interpretations build upon extensive previous complicated layerings of human and scholarly interpretation. Consequently, previous truths or falsehoods may become instrumental in proving modern truths or falsehoods sometimes engendering vicious cycles.

Historically, such political phenomena as nationalism, colonialism, and imperialism are interlaced with heritage used as a political tool. Of these oft cited examples of heritage politics one of the widest known must be Hitler’s legitimization of Aryan superiority. However less famed, current manifestations of heritage politics prove that, as John Tierney, author of the article ‘A Case in Antiquities for ‘Finders Keepers’ wrote, “whatever the particular motivation, there is no doubt that the cultural-property laws have turned archeological discoveries into political weapons.” (‘A Case in Antiquities for ‘Finders Keepers’)

What the world misses are firstly, a matrix or system with which it can understand different current manifestations and secondly, solutions for the complex ethical challenges involved. Keeping very much in the forefront of one’s mind that thematic matrices all too often ignore the critical differences each case exhibits, it is important to consolidate understanding of heritage politics in order to approach it more constructively. In the same breath, only when modern societies and politicians better understand these issues can can they begin to use their heritage in ethical and positive manners.

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