Heritage, Memory and Identity

Authored by: McDowell Sara

The Ashgate Research Companion to Heritage and Identity

Print publication date:  April  2008
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754649229
eBook ISBN: 9781315613031
Adobe ISBN: 9781317043249




As definitions of heritage become increasingly fluid and wide reaching (Harvey, 2001), this chapter, informed by the literature on memory and identity, makes a return to the more traditional interpretations of heritage as a cultural product/resource (with social and political functions) (Lowenthal, 1985; 1996). Widely accepted as the selective use of the past for contemporary purposes (Ashworth and Graham, 2005, 7), heritage can be seen as an aggregation of myths, values and inheritances determined and defined by the needs of societies in the present. Exploring the connections between memory, identity and heritage through an examination of cultural landscapes (which are best understood as environments which reflect the interactions between populations and their surroundings), the overarching objective of this chapter is to work towards a more thorough and definitive understanding of the heritage process and its cultural uses. It begins with a detailed discussion of cultural landscapes and their ability to express contemporary relationships. It then considers the concept of memory, interrogating some of the reasons why people remember and how changing interpretations of the past shape the meanings and functions of heritage within any given group or community. Accepting that heritage is a highly political process, malleable to the needs of power and often subject to contestation, the concluding part of the chapter draws on a number of examples to underline the potential of the past to validate and legitimate (as well as undermine) political and territorial ideologies in the present.

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Heritage, Memory and Identity

As definitions of heritage become increasingly fluid and wide reaching (Harvey, 2001), this chapter, informed by the literature on memory and identity, makes a return to the more traditional interpretations of heritage as a cultural product/resource (with social and political functions) (Lowenthal, 1985; 1996). Widely accepted as the selective use of the past for contemporary purposes (Ashworth and Graham, 2005, 7), heritage can be seen as an aggregation of myths, values and inheritances determined and defined by the needs of societies in the present. Exploring the connections between memory, identity and heritage through an examination of cultural landscapes (which are best understood as environments which reflect the interactions between populations and their surroundings), the overarching objective of this chapter is to work towards a more thorough and definitive understanding of the heritage process and its cultural uses. It begins with a detailed discussion of cultural landscapes and their ability to express contemporary relationships. It then considers the concept of memory, interrogating some of the reasons why people remember and how changing interpretations of the past shape the meanings and functions of heritage within any given group or community. Accepting that heritage is a highly political process, malleable to the needs of power and often subject to contestation, the concluding part of the chapter draws on a number of examples to underline the potential of the past to validate and legitimate (as well as undermine) political and territorial ideologies in the present.

Expressing Meaning: the Cultural Landscape and the Heritage Process

Only hours after the bombing of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on 19 April 1995, people began to visit the site, bringing with them ephemeral paraphernalia such as flowers, toys and messages of sympathy to try and mark the loss of 168 lives in what had been, at that time, the biggest terrorist act on American soil (Linenthal, 2001, 5). Such was the impulse to inscribe memory at and onto the site that thousands of unsolicited ideas for a physical memorial arrived at the Oklahoma offices of the mayor and governor from all over the United States in the first few days following the attack. Only two months later, a memorial task-force was set up, while the final physical memorial was dedicated (after much debate, deliberation and contestation) five years after the bombing in April 2000. Writing about the place of the Oklahoma attack in American memory, Edward Linenthal argues that: ‘the bombing occurred at a time when memorialization had become a significant form of cultural expression. Much more than a gesture of remembrance, memorialization was a way to stake one’s claim to visible presence in culture’ (2001, 5). The bombing then ‘revealed a remarkable American memorial vocabulary’ (2001, 5).

This desire to represent memory through the marking of ‘place’ is a feature of all modern societies and is prevalent after every conflict or tragic event. ‘Places’, as Kuusisto notes, constitute significant sites which have been invested with meaning (1999, 15), often representing the ‘heritage’ of a particular individual, group or community. They are locations with which people connect, either physically or emotionally (Creswell, 2004), and are bound up in notions of belonging (or not belonging), ownership and consequently identity. As Rose suggests: ‘One way in which identity is connected to a particular place is by a feeling that you belong to that place. It’s a place that you feel comfortable, or at home, because part of how you define yourself is symbolized by certain qualities of that place’ (Rose, 1995, 81). Moreover, a ‘sense of place’ relates to the ‘socially constructed perceptions and beliefs’ that individuals or groups hold about a particular location (Sumaratojo, 2004, 88).

The overwhelming need to turn the site of the Oklahoma bomb into some kind of meaningful public memorial place was highly significant for a number of reasons, and underscores the potential of cultural landscapes to act as tangible places to dissect the meanings and functions of heritage. By carving memory onto the site, first through the laying of flowers and toys, and then through the construction of a permanent exhibit (which has become the focus of annual commemorations), the Oklahoma community and the larger American public illustrated the need to preserve and sanctify the site (the past) for the future. These icons became expressions of private, local and national grief as well as symbols of American unity, identity and heritage. The memorials were also representations of intransigence, control and power, communicating the forceful message to terrorists that Americans were resistant and defiant. As exemplified in the Oklahoma example, the cultural landscape, as Foote explains, acts as ‘a communicational resource, a system of signs and symbols’ (1998, 33). It is ‘never inert’ as populations ‘engage with it, rework it, appropriate it and contest it’ making it a key resource in the heritage process (Bender, 1993, 3). In a similar vein, Young et al. contend that landscapes are made up of ‘layers’ (in Anderson and Gale, 1992, 4). These layers stem from changing economic, political cultural and demographic factors affecting a particular society and are testament to diverse histories and geographies, and as such they can be peeled away to reveal the cultural aspirations and struggles of society. Landscape then, like society, is in a constant mode of flux, as it consistently develops and mutates.

A landscape, therefore, can be ‘a cultural image, a pictorial way of representing, structuring or symbolising surroundings’ (Cosgrove and Daniels, 1988, 1), so any reading of it must focus on the visual images and symbols that help create it. Suggestions that the ‘visual is central to the cultural construction of life’ (Rose, 2001, 6) and assertions that ‘what is potentially visible is omnipresent’ (Lowenthal, 1985, 238) reinforce the notion that the cultural landscape is a key resource in the interpretation and articulation of heritage. Visual images in the landscape are best understood by engaging primarily with the literature addressing semiotics or the study of signs (see, for example, Sebeok, 1991). Through the study of semiotics, populations can learn more about themselves and others, how they make and convey meanings (and heritage) and how they understand what happens in the world: ‘By identifying with the study of semiotics, we identify ourselves as interested in understanding such issues’ (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1993). Marschall’s (2006) application of visual methodologies to a reading of the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto, constructed as part of a widespread commemorative programme to devise a new heritage for post-apartheid South Africa, underscores the importance of using semiotics to interpret meaning. She argues that simple signifiers have the power to evoke similar emotional responses across time, space and cultures. Symbols thus act as a kind of shorthand, conveying and condensing complicated values or sentiments (Turner, 1967). Natural elements such as fire and water have universal understanding, while abstract or minimalist symbols (inherent to many memorials) are designed to inspire viewers to imagine meaning. Marschall, using the specific example of Holocaust memorials, suggests that many abstract designs are chosen in these instances because there is, as Theodore Adorno contends, no possible way of visually representing extreme suffering (cited in Marschall, 2006).

Inherent to visual symbols is the context in which they are placed and the environment by which they are affected. It is, therefore, important to consider the ‘wide range of economic, social and political relations, institutions and practices that surround an image and through which it is seen and used’ (Rose, 2001, 17). Thus, the way in which a visual symbol is received by its audience is largely determined by the current social, economic or political climate. As such, visual icons are paramount to our understanding of relationships within local communities and their subsequent relationships with the state. Forester and Johnson (2002, 525) believe that by contesting, supporting, ratifying or ignoring symbols in the landscape, political elites and communities engage with one another through ‘symbolic dialogue’.

Through this analysis of ‘symbolic dialogue’, we can ‘map meaning’ in the cultural landscape (Whelan, 2005, 61). Cohen has argued that symbols do not carry meaning inherently, but give their audience the capacity to take meaning (cited in Buckley, 1998, 14). That meaning is ever-changing:

There are so many symbols, from which one can choose; each symbol can be interpreted differently; a symbol can become ossified and can fail this year to evoke a reality, which it evoked last year; and the realities to which any social group refers are themselves subject to change. And above all, each social group and each individual is likely to shape reality in a different way, bending the symbolism to their particular desires (Buckley, 1998, 14).

Hence, populations reinvent signs and symbols and read them in different contexts, transforming their reference and meaning. Landscapes, then, are consequently open to interpretation (and subsequently contestation). The visual features of the cultural landscape such as public buildings, monuments, plaques, plinths, graffiti, and street names, which find tangible representation in the landscapes around us, map selective interpretations of the past and present onto public places. As such, they articulate heritage and can be read as icons of identity and spatializations of history. The cultural landscape, therefore, is a fundamental resource for understanding the complex connections between heritage, memory and identity.

Remembering the Past

Accepting that heritage is the selective use of the past as a resource for the present (and future) (Ashworth and Graham, 2005) it should be little surprise to find that memory and commemoration are inexorably connected to the heritage process. Writing in 1994, Huyssen noted: ‘As we are approaching our fin de siecle, issues of time and memory haunt contemporary culture. Museums and memorials are being constructed as if there were no tomorrow’ (1994, 3). The study of memory has burgeoned in recent years (see, for example, Edensor, 1997; Johnston, 1999; Lahiri, 2003), almost to the extent that it is no longer sufficient to discuss memory as some kind of unitary entity. There are, for example, multiple types of memory: official; unofficial; public; private; collective; communal; local; national; societal; historical; emotional; postmemory; literal; and exemplary. Memories are often thought of in terms of scale: from the individual or private which may involve personal experiences such as loss or suffering (Burk, 2003, 317);the local or communal, which draws on key events or experiences that have occurred within close-knit groups; to societal memory which describes narratives of the past that are sympathetic to a broader, loosely interconnected population. Also on that same scale is public and national memory. Bodnar (1992, 13) argues that public memory emerges from the ‘intersection of official and vernacular cultural expressions’, while Shackel (2003, 11) believes that it is ‘a reflection of present political and social relationships’. Public memory is, as Till (1999, 254) argues, ‘a fluid process’ that is not only negotiated by official or national groups but also by the media, academics, heritage institutions and local community organizations.

National memory, meanwhile, is frequently thought of in conjunction with official memory that, in most societies, emanates from the state and its institutions, often representing the hegemonic needs and values of the general public (Koshar, 1998). Nation-states play leading roles in the construction of heritage as they subscribe to a set of ideas that are consequently embedded through socialization and education. As a result, the state is usually the official arbitrator of public commemoration and, therefore, of national heritage, and as such, it assumes responsibility over planning, maintaining and funding memorial monuments, programmes and events. This is best exemplified in the official remembrance of Britain’s war dead in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. By engraving ‘sacred landscapes of remembrance’ and by initiating a number of commemorative programmes across France and Belgium, the dead ‘were not allowed to pass unnoticed back into the private world of their families. To do so would have dramatically diminished their collective cultural impact’ (Heffernan, 1995, 313). As ‘official property’ they not only served to acknowledge the country’s heritage of sacrifice, but allowed the British government to refute any ‘moral or political’ criticism of its handling of the situation. Tosh has argued that for any social grouping to have a collective identity, it has to have a shared interpretation of the events and experiences which have formed the group over time: ‘Sometimes this will include an accepted belief about the origins of the group, as in the case of many nation states, emphasis may be on vivid turning points and symbolic moments which confirm the self-image and aspirations of the group’ (Tosh, 1991, 2).

These collective beliefs play a fundamental role in securing a sense of togetherness and cultural solidarity which is vital in the formation and legitimization of any national identity (Lowenthal, 1985, 44). National cohesion, in other words, requires a sense of collective awareness and identity endorsed through common historical experience. Unofficial memory is often seen as a binary opposite to national or official memory, but it remains a somewhat unambiguous and dangerous term. If official memory is linked to national memory, then unofficial must be equally applicable to anything that is not state-structured. This is, of course, not the case, as many groups and individuals regard their own individual, local or communal heritages to be just as valid and ‘official’ as that of the state or other officially sanctioned forms of remembering.

In discussing the relationship between memory and violence, Todorov (1996) introduced two more categories of memory, literal and exemplary. Literal memories, he notes, are those attached solely to a violent event which do not extend to other similar events. Exemplary memories, conversely, extend their reference to other similar occurrences, thus making it easier to abstract lessons from the past to inform the future (key to the development of heritage). Hirsch’s study of ‘postmemory’ also looks at the effects of violence on memory. She argues that the term best describes a form of memory which has been circulated through other people’s experiences of a violent event (1997). In postmemory, memories are passed down through generations to be represented by people who have no personal attachment to the memory. Subsequently, they seek to re-use, re-enact and re-represent those memories in order to feel closer to their ancestors (Sturken, 1997). Edkins (2003, 46), meanwhile, uses the term ‘emotional’ memory to describe the transgenerational remembering of traumatic events.

Yet what all of these typologies of memory have in common is the fact that they are all attached inexorably to certain places, making the cultural landscape paramount to our understanding of the various relationships and meanings they embody. When we remember September 11, for example, we are instantly transported to the site of Ground Zero. Sites of cultural heritage, therefore, such as buildings, monuments, plaques, museums and gardens of remembrance, incite our memories and reinforce our attachment to particular places.

Remembering and commemorating the past is an essential part of the present and is important for a number of reasons. Not only is it tied inexorably to our sense of identity, but it is also an inherent part of the heritage process as we remember the past ‘in the light of our (present) needs and aspirations’ (Walker, 1996, 51). Without memory, a sense of self, identity, culture and heritage is lost. Through remembering, we create and suppress cultures and traditions, as memories are ‘conflated and embellished’ (Lowenthal, 1985, 1). Identities are validated as well as contested, and the adoption and cultivation of an aspect of the past serves to reinforce a sense of natural belonging, purpose and place (Lowenthal, 1985, 2). For Longley (1994, 69), remembering is a means whereby communities ‘renew their own religio: literally what ties them together, the rope around the individual sticks’.

Identities and memories, like heritage, are inevitably selective in that they serve particular interests and political ideologies in the present (Gillis, 1994, 14). Gergen proposes that Americans and Europeans are compulsive consumers of the past ‘shopping for what best suits their particular sense of self at that time’ (cited in Gillis, 1994, 18). The idea that the past is chosen deliberately and subsequently consumed is appropriate but, arguably, demeaning in that it trivializes that which people consider sacred, as moments, events and themes from an array of histories are consequently ‘bought’ for present consumption or even to conform to the latest fashion. Again, memories are seen as selective and partial and used to fulfil individual, group or communal requirements of identity at a particular time and in a particular space: ‘Times change, and as they do, people look back on the past and reinterpret events and ideas. They look for patterns, for order, and for coherence in past events to support changing social, economic, and cultural values’ (Foote, 1998, 28).

Lowenthal (1985), reflecting on the reasons for selecting particular aspects of the past, argues that societies change or alter the past because they often need or want more than they have been bequeathed. He believes that most people exaggerate their cultural antiquity or conceal its relative recentness. Subsequently new, more appropriate, histories are ‘invented’:

Invented traditions are taken to mean a set of practices normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inoculate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past. In fact they normally attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historic past (Hobsbawn and Ranger, 1983, 1).

This use of the past is a characteristic of modern communities and groups as they continually retell their pasts. Tosh suggests that while social groupings need a record of prior experience, they also require a narrative of the past which serves to explain or justify the present, often at the cost of historical accuracy. He observes: ‘memories are modified to suit particular situations or circumstances and do not always correlate with historical truths’ (1991, 2). These histories can become distorted and permeated (often deliberately) with inaccuracies and myths during the selection process, making the act of ‘forgetting’ in memory construction just as crucial for the cultivation of identity (Rowlands, 1999).

Individuals, groups or communities in society all tend to remember different aspects of the past, but they tend to do so in diverse ways and with alternative methods. Interpretation is predetermined by the social, economic, political and/or local context. Societies justify current attitudes and future aspirations by linking them to past traditions which helps bond and unify factionalism. ‘The landscape itself is an active agent in constituting that history, serving both as a symbol for the needs and desires of the people who live in it’ (Mitchell, 2003, 93).

Politicizing the Past (and Present)

Heritage is a highly politicized process that is subject to contestation and bound up in the construction, reconstruction and deconstruction of memory and identity (Whelan, 2003). Memory always represents a struggle over power and is thus implicated in the ‘who decides?’ questions about the future. Power, as Voltaire noted, can be understood as making others act as one person or group chooses (cited in Arendt, 1986, 60). Russell (1975), meanwhile, defines power as the ‘production of intended effects’, believing, for example, that it can be measured in terms of achievement, in how successful one person is over another at a particular thing. He questions whether or not power constitutes the actual production of effects or the capacity to produce them. Building on this, Foucault suggests that power needs to be examined at the ‘point where its intention is completely invested in its real and effective practices’ (1986, 239). There is a difference, then, between those who are perceived by others to hold power and those who see themselves as powerful (Lukes, 1987).

Notions of power are central to the construction of heritage, and consequently identity, giving weight to the argument that heritage ‘is not given; it is made’ (Harvey, 2001, 336; Brett, 1996). Those who wield the greatest power, therefore, can influence, dictate or define what is remembered and consequently what is forgotten. Anderson and Gale (1992, 8) contend that: ‘our landscapes are valuable documents on the power plays from which social life is constructed, both materially and rhetorically’, illuminating their potential to reflect struggles within the heritage process. Many academics have written extensively on the specific capacity of sites of cultural heritage to represent power. Whelan, for example, argues that memorial icons of identity such as monuments, memorials, and buildings that have been invested with meaning, carry conscious and subconscious messages and are subject to competing interests. Their very public visual presence translates powerful ideological messages that are never apolitical, and ensures that the messages they convey are open to contested interpretations (2003, 14). Charlesworth (1994, 597) too, discussing the specific capacity of Auschwitz-Birkenau to evoke the memory of the Holocaust, argues that ‘memorial sites are open to various interpretations and malleable to the needs of power and influence’. The emergence of Auschwitz-Birkenau as the symbol of the Holocaust is one of many examples of expressions of power at work within memorial landscapes. His examination of the contestation over symbolic space at Auschwitz highlights the individual attempts by both the Catholic Church and the former Polish communist state to claim ownership over the site for their own needs.

A similar example can be found in South Korea. In May 1980, government forces under General Chun Doo Hwan killed 200 civilian demonstrators (marching for democracy) in the town of Kwangui. In the aftermath of the massacre, families of the dead commemorated their loved ones locally in the Mangwol-dong Cemetery. Yet in recent years the deaths have acquired a new national meaning and significance. Under the democratic government of Kim Young Sam (1993–97) the deaths were rerepresented as the catalyst for political reform in Korea (Yea, 2002). Kim announced the construction of a series of ‘official’ memorials across the country, including the construction of a new Mangwol-dong Cemetery. These official commemorations were imagined to complement and reinforce Kim’s democratic presidency (and power) and thus stripped ownership of the deaths from both the private grief of the families and the local grief of Kwangui. Notions of power, therefore, are paramount to our understanding of the representation of memory onto cultural landscapes. As Harvey (1989, 217) notes: ‘Social practices may invoke certain myths and push for certain spatial and temporal representations as part and parcel of their drive to implant and reinforce their hold on society.’

Those with the most at stake in political terms, and those with the greatest ability to exercise power, have a vested interest in the production of sites of cultural heritage and bring the past into focus to legitimize a present social order as exemplified by the actions of the Kim Young Sam government. It is an ‘implicit rule’ that participants in any social order must ‘presuppose a shared memory’ which is integral for group or communal solidarity. The meaning of any individual or group identity, ‘namely a sense of sameness over time and space’, is sustained by recalling the past; and what is remembered is ‘defined by the assumed identity’ (Connerton, 1989, 3).

Bodnar’s (1992) examination of commemorative activity in America suggests that leaders use the past for a variety of political purposes. The nation’s heritage is therefore brought to the fore ‘to calm anxiety about change or political events, eliminate citizen indifference toward official concerns, promote exemplary patterns of citizen behaviour, and stress citizen duties over rights’ (Bodnar, 1992, 15). Buckley (1998, 14) also supports this argument, noting that: ‘the questions as to which symbols will define any given situation, will largely be determined by the practical question of which people and whose interests predominate’. The selection process is carefully tailored and manipulated by individual members of a community or group with power or influence.

Heritage is often defined by a dominant group within a particular society which, in many cases, tends to be national governments. Sites of memory such as monuments, plaques, museums and symbolic architectural spaces, as static and permanent reminders of the past concretized in the present, are often constructed by national governments to represent hegemonic values that cultivate notions of national identity and frame ideas and histories of the nation. Boyer (cited in Till, 1999, 254) has called such powerful sites ‘rhetorical topoi’, believing that as sites of civic construction, they instruct citizens what to value concerning their national heritage and public responsibilities. Such sites represent and embody power, greatness, resistance, memory and loss (Leerssen, 2001). Monuments, for example: ‘[m]ark the great pinnacles of human achievement selected from the past, they give an edifying sense that greatness was once possible, and it is still possible. They provide present generations with inspiration’ (Leerssen, 2001, 207).

Building on Boyer’s work, Till (1999, 3) argues that the creation of ‘rhetorical topoi’ as powerful and official landscape stages ‘is both a dramaturgical and territorial act’. Citizens re-enact and repeat the past in fixed locales as suggested by their national governments. Wreath-laying and memorial services at these sites help reaffirm ownership of the space, reinforcing the power of the group. This both gives meaning to the site in question and also confirms the particular claims to the memory being evoked. Such issues of power are evident in the official/national remembering of the Finnish Civil War of 1918 which witnessed the population of Finland divide into two separate camps, White and Red. The Whites had orchestrated a ‘war of liberation’ from Russia, while the Reds wanted a more liberal socialist Finland, taking their lead from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The victory of the Whites (who lost 5,300 dead) over the Reds led to decades of official remembrance omitting the narratives of 28,000 Red fatalities. According to Lehto, the state emerged strengthened and in a prime position to express power over its institutions: ‘As victors of the Civil War, the Whites were in a position to construct a past that they could not only live with, but one that also buttressed the regime and its vision of an independent Finland’ (Lehto, 2002, 19). In the multitude of official commemorations which flourished throughout subsequent years, the Finnish government would not (and had the power so not to) recognize that the Reds represented a group with legitimate grievances and claims against the state. ‘Social amnesia’ within national heritage and the distortion of the enemy’s narratives became essential for the Whites if Finland was to maintain its independence from Russia: ‘Commemorative activity is by definition social and political, for it involves the co-ordination of individual or group memories whose results may appear consensual when they are in fact the product of intense struggle and in some instances annihilation’ (Gillis, 1994, 14). Heritage, then, not only serves to reinforce narratives of national identity but often works to suppress the identity of minority or less powerful groups.

Sites of memory and power are often constructed in public spaces, where they can operate as dichotomous sites of unification and sites of division. It is unlikely, therefore, that everyone in a community or within a nation gives equal support to the remembering of a particular aspect of the past. Meethan (2001, 240) has argued against collective notions of communal identity: ‘To think of communities as homogeneous entities is to assume that everyone in a specific locality will have the same wants and needs and expectations, and while some people may have a clear sense of attachment, others may not.’

While many national governments use space by constructing symbols to consolidate national identity and legitimize power, many other groups who contest the use of space and the memory being evoked (or forgotten) will work to undermine or manipulate the memorial site or create their own separate important place which is indicative of their own heritage. This is exemplified by the memorialization of suicide bombers in Sri Lanka, which has a long history of conflict and civil war between the Sinhalese majority (74 per cent) and the Tamil minority (17 per cent) (Nadarajah and Sriskandarajah, 2005, 87). Formed in 1976 in response to ongoing antagonism between the Sri Lankan state and Tamil minority, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) embarked on a violent campaign to achieve an independent Tamil state. In 1987 the group stepped up their ‘liberation struggle’ by forming a suicide corps known as the Black Tigers. Suicide bombings carried out by men, women and children presented the state with a new lethal threat. After nearly three decades of violence, a volatile peace agreement was mediated by Norway in 2002. During the unstable peace that followed, the LTTE embarked on its own commemorative campaign to acknowledge its own narratives of identity which were completely separate from those of the state. Ad hoc shrines were erected sporadically around Tamil areas and an arrangement of photographs of suicide bombers was put on the back of a truck and driven around local neighbourhoods in memory of those who had killed themselves for the cause (<http://www.advocacynet.org/photos/photos_10522.html>). Black Tiger Day, held on 5 July, has become an annual commemoration and thus an expression of Tamil cultural heritage. Supporters fly commemorative flags in the Tamil colours of red and yellow, while others put up memorial posters to remember those who have given their lives for the ‘liberation movement’. These forms of alternative remembering challenge official state narratives in Sri Lanka and consequently are not recognized as they pose a direct challenge to government power and authority.

Efforts to challenge official interpretations of the past have also taken place in Guatemala which has been plagued by violence resulting from conflict between the state and guerrilla forces since the 1970s. On 25 February 1982, the Guatemalan army killed 177 women and children and buried them in a mass grave (the killings later became known colloquially as the Rio Negro Massacre). Twelve years later, in April 1994, the tiny community of Rabinal Baja Verapuz constructed a memorial entitled the ‘Monument of Truth’ which, for the first time, told the ‘truth’ about the massacre and the government’s involvement in rape, maiming and murder (<http://www.rightsaction.org/articles/Archive_O04/0395.htm>). After only two weeks the memorial was smashed by state forces. Undeterred, the community erected another memorial the following year on the 13th anniversary of the killings. The second memorial was constructed from steel and concrete, testament to the community’s wishes for its story to ‘be told’. Names of the 70 children who were killed were etched onto the steel front of the memorial, while the inscription on an accompanying plaque recalled the brutality of the event: ‘Children who were smashed against the rock’. The eventual siting of the memorial to the victims of the Rio Negro Massacre signalled the creation of new spatial arenas through which to challenge interpretations about violence (and more specifically about gendered violence against women) in Guatemala (see, for example, Nolin Hanlon and Shankar, 2000).

Writing about the power struggles within the heritage process, Till (1999, 253) suggests that: ‘These more localized territorial struggles over the meaning of the built environment often reflect larger social (and power) disputes over who has the authority to create, define, interpret and represent collective pasts through place.’ Communities then often clash over the physical representations of power in their landscapes. While some symbols may represent one group’s tangible definition of identity, they may similarly offend or exclude another. Donnan and McFarland suggest that landscape is available to all who can see it, and is, therefore, owned communally rather than privately (1997, 21). This reading of landscape is paradoxical. The iconographic characteristics of the cultural landscape may be read communally in any society as they may occupy shared or public space. However, their construction and purpose are often aimed at one particular group or to represent a particular hegemonic image. Powerful symbolic landscapes can function, then, as sites of resistance. Edkins (2003, 218) argues that the Mall in Washington DC, as a site of heritage and as a symbol of American imperial power, is often the focus for resistance by many groups. Take, for example, Martin Luther King’s manipulation of the Lincoln Memorial on the west side of the Mall in 1963 to draw attention to racial inequality in the USA. The Mall has become the focus of resistance for many who oppose the state or hegemonic value systems. San Franciscan activist, John Cleve, constructed an AIDS Quilt which was also exhibited across the Mall in 1987. According to Edkins (2003, 19), the quilt, which comprised 1,920 panels commemorating the lives of AIDS victims, was an effort to ‘call upon the conscience of the nation’. In recent years, the Mall has again become the focus of anti-war protests for those opposed to the American-led Iraq War.

The struggle to remember the past reflects the power plays within society and is often, as Burk (2003, 317) notes, ‘a tactic for political action’. There is an inherent complexity in achieving such a goal as universal consensus, and universal participation in the choice of commemoration is rarely sought. Additionally, open criticism is not always taken into account in the construction of commemorative sites: ‘the shaping of a past worthy of public commemoration in the present is contested and involves a struggle for supremacy between advocates of various political ideas and sentiments’ (Bodnar, 1992, 13).

Territoriality and Heritage

Also inherent in the production of sites of cultural heritage is the concept of territoriality. Memory has been labelled a ‘metaphor of a physical location’ and, as such, is intimately bound up in efforts to construct territory and place (Wright and Falconer, 1998). The concept of, or acts of, territoriality are bound up in notions of a demarcated geographic space (a territory) which usually contains some kind of homogeneous, collectivized community (Grosby, 2005) sharing a collective identity or heritage. Territoriality is needed to stabilize and mobilize groups or individuals and their resources inside demarcated boundaries. Within societies then, various groups insert symbols into the cultural landscapes which resonate with their sense of heritage and identity, and which simultaneously incite remembering and mark territory. For territoriality to work, the group often places visual warning symbols around the agreed territory further to deny others access into the home area. As Buckley notes: ‘it is well known that symbols are found at boundaries. Most obviously these boundaries are physical and to do with territory’ (1998, 6). Not only does territoriality demarcate boundaries which are ultimately intended to exclude outsiders, but it is dichotomously aimed at seizing a shared public space and thus controlling those inside the territory. This argument is supported by Longley (1994) who contends that territorial markers are directed as much towards the local community as they are to outsiders. Flags, for example, which often reflect the heritage of a particular group or nation, are good examples of territorial signifiers. They tell outsiders that the territory they are about to enter or pass is not theirs. Rather it belongs to those who live within the demarcated boundary or to those who empathize with what the flag represents. This spatial practice is particularly prevalent in parts of Northern Ireland where divided communities place signifiers of their national heritage at interface areas to demarcate territory. Boundaries are constructed and maintained through the production of symbols, in the effort to claim power for individual communities.

Spatial practices which bolster and sustain the power of the dominant group are essential components for that group’s control over the hegemonic values that it represents or imposes (Passi, 1999). That dominant group is often the nationstate. Tilly (1990, 1), for example, argues that secure territorial boundaries and a monopoly of violence (which are inexorably interconnected) are the two defining characteristics of the present-day state. Ansell and Di Palma (2004) similarly argue that territorial boundaries are the foundations for institutions such as national sovereignty, citizenship, the modern welfare state and democracy. Graham (1998, 130), too, contends that:

The interlinked concepts of nationhood and statehood share a dependence on the notion of exclusivity concerning sovereign rights over access to territory. The notion that landscapes embody discourses of inclusion and exclusion is closely linked to the idea that manipulated geographies also function as symbols of identity, validation and legitimization.

Yet the continuing importance of territoriality and its seemingly intractable relationship with the nation-state at the turn of the century has been questioned. Jacobson (1997, 121), for example, has argued that globalization embodying transnational economics, politics and cultures, the melting of borders, particularly in Europe, and an increasing sense of belonging to a ‘global unit’, has led to a distinct lack of engagement with the unitary nation-state. Nevertheless, demarcating and protecting boundaries has remained of paramount importance in countries such as Israel, Estonia, Latvia and Sri Lanka. Yiftachel and Ghanem, discussing territoriality in these ethnocratic states (ethnocratic meaning a regime that permits the expansion, ethnicization and control of contested territory and state by a dominant ethnic nation), argue that such societies are driven by a ‘concerted collective project of exerting ethno-national control over a territory perceived as the nation’s exclusive homeland’ (2004, 651). While all four ethnocracies cited claim to be democratic, they are underpinned by autocratic leanings that are intent upon seizing contested territory and the power apparatus (Yiftachel and Ghanem, 2004, 652). The heritage process is explicitly and implicitly important for reinforcing claims to territory in all ethnocratic states.

In Latvia, for example, the annual commemoration of the Barricade Days (20 January 1988), which marks the restoration of the country’s independence, has become increasingly popular, while a significant number of memorials in Riga, the capital, remember the sacrifices made by the hundreds of thousands of Latvians killed throughout the country’s history of occupation (by the Germans throughout World War II and then by the Soviets from 1944 to 1988) (Skultans, 2001). These practices are an integral part of the construction of a new identity and a separate heritage for many Latvians. By dismantling sites of heritage synonymous with Soviet occupation (which were constructed in the first instance to reinforce Soviet control of Latvian territory) and replacing them with expressions and narratives of Latvian identity, the local population can validate their new-found independence. Similar processes have taken place in neighbouring Estonia, which is emerging too from a volatile history of occupation. Such examples illuminate the overlapping and complex connections between memory, territory and heritage.


Heritage is not then solely ‘all things to all people’ (Larkin, in Brett, 1996, 319), devoid of any definitive definition. It is a process that draws on the past and which is intimately related to our identity requirements in the present. We manipulate it for validation, legitimization and unity and we call on it in order to challenge, refute and undermine. Heritage is political and often territorial, serving certain agencies and groups through communicating narratives of inclusion and exclusion, continuity and instability. All in all it is a complex concept which cannot be separated from the interrelated concepts of memory and identity.

In sum, this chapter has worked towards a more thorough understanding of the key conceptual debates and issues surrounding the connections between heritage, memory and identity, paying particular attention to these relationships within the cultural realm. Discussing the importance and significance of cultural landscapes as tools for unravelling and dissecting the meanings and functions of heritage, it has illuminated the potential of landscapes to express not only relationships in the present but also a society’s changing relationship to its past. The examination of the various typologies of memory in the early part of the chapter further reinforces the argument that the study of memory is increasingly important in understanding how we acquire narratives of the past for present purposes. It has been emphasized that heritage is a dynamic and negotiable process, subject to contestation and malleable to the needs of societies and cultures in the present.


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