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Definitions of heritage according to the cultural context

Can the concept of cultural heritage take different meanings according to the cultural context? Nick Dines looks at English and Italian usage.
I think the most important thing to underline straight away with regards to the meaning of heritage is that it’s a very elastic and at times, quite elusive concept that carries with it a lot of baggage, and the baggage in different languages is quite different. And one approach to thinking about how heritage, and it’s equivalent terms in different languages– so in the case of Italian, “patrimonio culturale”, or sometimes, “beni culturali”, one approach of thinking how these multiple meanings shift and vary is not to try and create a definition, which is simply a list of aggregate meanings and trying to put them all in, because one will never be able, I believe, to actually provide a definite, clear definition of heritage in various languages.
My interest is rather to think about heritage as a key word. And that’s drawing on Raymond Williams and his cultural materialist approach to semantic use. In other ways to think about how words shift in different historical and spatial contexts. And that can actually underline something quite distinct when we’re thinking about the different meanings in Italian and in British, in British English. So for instance, in British English, heritage, I would argue, has far more layers of meaning as a result of the way in which it’s used publicly in lots of different contexts, and not just in policy context, not just in expert driven context– so among curators and archaeologists and so forth– and not just as an academic concept.
It is also used as a term in everyday language. You could chat about heritage with people in a football stadium and that term would be articulated in a way that is perhaps difficult for us to accept, us who have sort of “academic” understandings of concepts. But a term that is nevertheless being thought about and as a result, is actually having an impact on the way in which heritage is also conceived in the public sphere. And there are reasons for this. There are historic reasons for this. The term heritage is simply used much more often publicly.
The vast majority of people who are playing the lottery in Britain are from– I mean, this is off the top of my head– but most of them of middle and working-class status, and they all know that that money is going towards heritage funding. So there’s even a weekly relationship with heritage, but there’s also the idea that heritage is associated– or was back in the 1980s– with going to a country house, the house of an aristocrat– that’s our heritage– and as a result has been contested. You know, why should that be our heritage and so forth.
In the case of Italy, I would argue that heritage remains very much what Laura Jane Smith referred to as an authorised heritage discourse– in other words, a term which is top down expert driven to a certain extent. There is this definition also within its use in British English, but I would argue that in Italy, it’s still heavily monopolised by policy makers, cultural experts, intellectuals. And if one actually looks at the debates– for instance, the debates I referred to before between those underlining its economic potential and those underlining its relationship with building citizenship and building democracy– much of that debate is taking place within a rarefied public sphere.
What I want to underline, however, is that we are in a historical period where the terms heritage and patrimonio are accumulating meaning, not just different meanings, but also extending out into different social contexts. But I think it’s fundamental to think not just to try and define heritage but also to understand how it is being used and who is using it.

Can the concept of cultural heritage take on different meanings according to the cultural context?

Nick Dines argues that the ways in which cultural heritage is understood can vary according to cultural contexts and gives the example of the differences of its use in British English and Italian.

Instead of pointing at a fixed set of definitions for each language, Nick Dines draws on Raymond Williams’s approach of cultural materialism on semantic use, and his notion of “keyword” to account for the shifting meanings of the concept of cultural heritage depending on cultural contexts.

He argues that in British English there are various layers of meanings deriving from its use in different spheres, in policy and academia, but also in daily life. He argues that in Italy, the equivalent concept of ‘patrimonio culturale’ refers rather to an expert-driven approach as such a top-down discourse tends to monopolize the use of this concept.

Reflect on the meaning of cultural heritage in your own culture: what is the word for ‘cultural heritage’ in your language? What is the origin of this word? What does it refer to?

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Cultural Heritage and the City

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