Possessed By The Past?

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PossessedBy The Past?

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Inhis book TheHeritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline1,Robert Hewisonhasquestioned the legitimacy of the heritage that has been establishedwithin Britain. He shows the effects of the heritage institutionslike museums and their creation of the “regret and nostalgia”feeling upon the communities in Britain since the periods ofrecession and modernization after the Second World War.2As a cultural historian from Britain, Hewison’s work has had aninfluence on his arguments concerning the heritage institutionsspecifically, the effects that they have had on the decline of theeconomy and culture in Britain.

Heclaims that the effects of heritage institutions are distortinghistory through doubtful interpretation, which draws into questionthe accuracy and truth in the recording of history in comparison withheritage. David Lowenthal in his book Possessedby the Past: The heritage crusade and the spoils of history3also has the same concerns that heritage institutions are distortinghistory through doubtful interpretation stating that “the lure ofheritage now outpaces other modes of retrieval, such as history”4.As such, this paper looks at whether Hewison and Lowenthal are rightby looking at heritage and history and finding out whether people areobsessed by the past.



Hewisondefinition of heritage that is outlined in his book TheHeritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline5is similar to that of Lowenthal. He defines heritage in the followingway:

“…isa set of imprisoning walls upon which we project a superficial imageof a false past, simultaneously turning our backs on the reality ofhistory, and incapable of moving forward because of the absorbingfantasy before us. This is the meaning of the heritage industry…itstill means ‘whatever you want’ to those who call it to theiraid6”.

Inthe book OurPast Before Us: Why Do We Save It?,the authors defines heritage in the following way: “Heritageexaggerates and omits, candidly forgets, and thrives on ignorance anderror7”.These two definitions of heritage by Hewison and Lowenthal show thatheritage is not about the reality of the recorded past history,rather, it is about the fantasy of what people want.


Hewisondefinition of history in his book TheHeritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline8delineateshistory in the following way:

“Theimpulse to preserve the past is part of the impulse to preserve theself. Without knowing where we have been, it is difficult to knowwhere we are going. The past is the foundation of individual andcollective identity, objects from the past are the source of significance as cultural symbols.”9

Lowenthaldefinition of history in his bookOur Past Before Us: Why Do We Save It?is in the following way: “Heritage should not be confused withhistory. History seeks to convince by truth10”.

TheEmergence of Heritage

Inhis book TheHeritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline11,Hewisonexamines the heritage industry and addresses the important economicquestion that burdens everyone living in Britain:

“Insteadof manufacturing goods, we are manufacturing heritage, a commoditywhich nobody seems able to define, but which everybody is eager tosell, in particular, those cultural institutions that can no longerrely on government funds as they did in the past.12

Heritagecultural institutions, such as museums, select and present a varietyof distinct items for the purpose of satisfying the demand of thepublic to have a national and social identity. The significance ofmuseums, especially in Britain, is their ability to define andinterpret items of the past to their audiences in the present. Forinstance, the British museums have pieces of art that depict Britishsoldiers in the Second World War as brave fighters who have preservedthe sovereignty of the country up until present day. Therefore,Britain’s museums are being used as theaters for the interpretationof the past.

However,while Britain’s museums are used as theaters for the interpretationof the past, an emergence of nostalgic feeling materializes aspeople, especially those with problems in the community, look to thepast to reimagine the “good old days” in order to escape theirpresent problems.

TheEmergence of Nostalgia

Inthe beginning paragraph of Hewison’s book TheHeritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline13,thefocus on the growth of the museum industry in Britain is assertedstating that such an industry is the “imaginative death” ofBritain. As a cultural historian, he had concentrated on the growthof global repatriations and cultural forces since 1945. Even thoughthe Second World War had ended, the nuclear age had started. Duringthe dissolution of the Soviet Union in 199114,people were still living under the threat of nuclear warfare.

Hewisonas a cultural historian dismisses the significance placed on thepreservation of the heritage of the threat of nuclear warfare in themuseum as nostalgic and superficial the constructed narrative of apast that is dead. He notes that the preservation of the heritage ofthe threat of nuclear warfare in the museum is not for the past as itwas experienced, rather, for the sanitization of the version of thepast that was reimagined by the heritage industry, contrary to theperceived problems of the present.

Heritageof the threat of nuclear warfare in the museum is nostalgic becauseit acts as destruction for people from engaging with important issuesin their present. Therefore, people who do not want to deal withimportant issues in their present look to the past as thesentimentalized “good old days” in order to feel secure in thepast memories and strengthen social-esteem to rise above presentanxieties.

Heritageand Its Influence on History

Withthe emergence of heritage and nostalgia, it is important to revisitthe definitions of heritage and history to understand how heritageinfluences history. Whereas heritage is about the fantasy of whatpeople want and not about the reality of the recorded past history,history is about truth and accuracy of the recorded past history.Just by looking at the definition of heritage and history, it can beseen that heritage destroys history because heritage relies on whatpeople want their life to be and not the true and accurate history.This implies that the museum in Britain can only put pieces of artfor an exhibition that depict British soldiers as heroes of war inthe Second World War and not as colonial masters who enslaved peoplefrom Africa.

Assuch, the heritage of Britain does not tell the British people thetrue and accurate history of the slave trade the soldiers wereinvolved in the African continent. The fear is that the heritage ofthe British soldiers as slave masters will paint a bad picture thatwill destroy the image of Britain as a whole. This heritage practiceof only putting pieces of art for exhibition in the museum thatdepict British soldiers as heroes of war is aimed to assert nostalgicfeelings so that people who do not want to deal with important issuesin their present life look to the past in order to feel secure.

However,Hewison warns that use of heritage practice to assert nostalgicfeelings to people distorts history. History is distorted because ofbad interpretation of past events. For example, if pieces of art in amuseum show British missionaries providing education and medicine toAfricans without showing how slaves suffered from forceful evictionand bad treatment during the slave trade that took a long time beforeit finally ended, the heritage of Britain will depict a nation thatprovided Africans with medicine and education. Therefore, thisdistorts history because future generations may think that Britainwas not involved in slave trade. Lowenthal supports Hewison citingthat the heritage crusade had much to answer for distorting historythrough doubtful interpretation in some countries where history wasnot truthfully and correctly recorded.

Therefore,it is vital to point out that individuals are not obsessed with theirpast, instead, they are obsessed with their heritage. For instance,when a tourist visits a country, such as the United States themuseums are normally the source of information about the country’sheritage, where pieces of art about the civil war are exhibited. Assuch, the tourist is more likely to get a distorted history of theUnited States. For example, the pieces of art may depict the civilwar as being the major event in the history of the United States.However, the death of native Indians, which is a major event in thehistory of the United States may not be depicted, and thereby, atourist is more likely to get a distorted history of the UnitedStates.

TheMuseum Industry and the Way Forward

Uponthe end of the Second World War, the cultural practices, especiallyin Britain concentrated on providing people with an immediateresponse to the increasing desire to learn and conserve their pasts.The response was a result of the destruction that was experienced bya lot of British citizens during the German Blitz, where in theSecond World War Germany was carrying out aerial campaign againstBritish. Nearly one-third of residential real estate in London aswell as printing houses, museums, and prestigious libraries weredestroyed. Lowenthal and Binney in their book OurPast Before Usexplain that in the course of war “The demolition of dwellings andfactory buildings wipes out a significant chapter of history of theplace. Such destruction deprives people of tangible manifestations oftheir history.15

Theresponse to cultural deprivation as a result of a significant chapterof history of a place being wiped out is what resulted in thecreation of Post-war Welfare which established the Arts Council in1945, the International Council of Museums, and the United NationsEducational in 1946. The establishment of these organizations showsthe importance of the preservation of history. According to thePresident of the Museums Association in the United Kingdom, therewere more than 2,500 museums as of 2014 in the United Kingdom. TheMuseums Association in an annual report of 2014 stated that:

“Ourcommunities are under stress and museums, building on theirtraditional role of preserving collections and engaging audiences,can play a key role in improving lives, creating better places, andhelping to advance society.”16

Assuch, it is important for the museum industry to concentrate on thehistory rather than heritage of a country, because as mentionedearlier, history preserves the true and accurate events of a country.Therefore, the way forward is for the museum industry to concentrateon preserving history in order to ensure that future generationsunderstand their past. As mentioned above, the way forward is for themuseum industry to put emphasis on preserving history. In his bookRescuingthe Past,17Tokeley Jonathan agrees that more emphasis should be put on thepreservation of history in order to safeguard the cultural heritageof a country so that future generations get to understand their past.


Inthe discussion, the distinction has been made between heritage andhistory by both Hewison and Lowenthal. Heritage has been explained aspeople turning their backs on the reality of history while historyhas been explained as the truth and accuracy of recorded narration.Thus, heritage is seen to distort history through doubtfulinterpretation. This has been shown in the discussion where anexample was given of an instance where Britain may depict theirheritage with pieces of art as missionaries providing Africans witheducation and medicine and hide their true history of slavery. Thehistory that depicts the truth and accurate history of Britaindisappears because no one wants to have a history that portrays apicture of people who used to be slave masters in the continent ofAfrica. As such, it is vital for the museum industry to put moreemphasis on the history of a country instead of the heritage, becauseas mentioned in the discussion, history preserves the accurate andtrue events of a country. In conclusion, the way forward as shown inthe discussion is for the museum industry to concentrate onpreserving history in order to ensure that future generationsunderstand their past so that they do not look in the past to findcomfort for their present problems.


Hewison,Robert. TheHeritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline.Great Britain: Methuen London Ltd., 1987.

Lowenthal,David. Possessedby the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Lowenthal,David and Marcus Binney. OurPast Before Us: Why Do We Save It?London: T. Smith, 1981.

Mak,Geert. InEurope: Travels Through The Twentieth Century.New York: Vintage Books, 2008.

MuseumsAssociation. &quotMuseums Association, Annual Report FinanceActivities for Financial Year 2013-2104&quot. MuseumsAssociation.Last modified 2014. Accessed August 12, 2016. https://www.museumsassociation.org/about/annual-report.

Tokeley,Jonathan. RescuingThe Past: The Cultural Heritage Crusade.Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2006.

1 Robert Hewison, The Heritage Industry: Britain In a Climate of Decline (Great Britain: Methuen London Ltd., 1987).

2 Hewison, 1987, p.10

3 David Lowenthal, Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

4 Lowenthal, 1987, p.3

5 Hewison, 1987

6 Hewison, 1987, p.139

7 David Lowenthal and Marcus Binney, Our Past Before Us: Why Do We Save It? (London: T. Smith, 1981), p.115

8 Hewison, 1987

9 Hewison, 1987, p.47

10 Lowenthal and Binney, 1981

11 Hewison, 1987

12 Hewison, 1987, p.9

13 Hewison, 1987

14 Geert Mak, In Europe: Travels Through The Twentieth Century (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), p.749

15 Lowenthal and Binney, 1981, p.115

16 Museums Association, &quotMuseums Association, Annual Report Finance Activities for Financial Year 2013-2104&quot, Museums Association, last modified 2014, accessed August 12, 2016, https://www.museumsassociation.org/about/annual-report.

17 Jonathan Tokeley, Rescuing the past: the cultural heritage crusade (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2006).

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