Wednesday, September 27, 1995

Heritage

IF PATRIOTISM is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then "heritage" is his final breathless scamper to avoid a sound flogging. The word has for a long time maintained a flickering presence. It could as easily represent something as hard and tangible as a plot of land, or something as personal as a partiality for mature, unpasteurised cheese. Increasingly, however, your heritage is less and less likely to mean an inalienable right, and more and more likely to be an "Experience".

The rot had set in long before David Mellor brought the term into disrepute during his time as Secretary of State for National Heritage in the United Kingdom. Even the title of Robert Hevison's 1987 book, The Heritage Industry gives a fair indication of the word's decline. What constitutes heritage, Hewison suggested, is controlled by a number of factors, ranging from nationalistic concerns to the desire to create a site with pulling power. The best way to achieve the latter, of course, is to offer people the heritage they would most like to have: a mirror in which to see themselves reflected as sexy and interesting.

The word "heritage" is now frequently used as a stamp denoting authenticity of a kind almost beyond question. A heritage trail is not an invitation to speculate, it is a demand to acknowledge. A heritage centre, like its close cousin the interpretative centre, is simply a lightning rod for tourist cash. Forte Heritage Hotels may indeed be fine establishments, but the "heritage" of the name whiffs undeniably of positioning rather than pride, of rapidly applied patina rather than seasoning.

Something of the real face of "heritage" emerged last week when the National Trust, once the keepers of Britain's heritage, were revealed to have fired a number of exemplary employees because they were too old.. Old people, of course, are not really part of the desired image for the gleaming machines of the heritage industry. These people were, the trust explained, taking casual jobs, such as giving out car park tickets, and depriving other, younger people of work. One such local "job seeker" interviewed by the BBC was asked if he was interested in "the national heritage". "No," he replied sharply, then added, in a significantly less confident tone, "what is it?" The journalist, of course, provided no answer.

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