Cards of Identity

Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History

by David Lowenthal
Free Press, 338 pp., $25.00

The trouble with the attempts to preserve various forms of “heritage,” David Lowenthal argues, is that they have become so unselective: nothing seems immune from preservation or museumification—buttons, barbed wire, the historic linoleum on the floor. His new book, Possessed by the Past, appears a little like that at times: it can seem as though there was no jotting in his card index that he could bear to throw away. But he is an alert and indefatigable snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. Cheerfully jaundiced, exuberantly glum, he shuffles a kaleidoscope of quotation and comment on every aspect of the heritage phenomenon: books, magazines, newspapers, jokes, anecdotes, and personal experience. An American who lives in England, he draws the greater part of his examples from the two countries he knows best, but his gaze is over all the world, and a single paragraph may leap from the Navaho to the Basque country to the Yakut of the Siberian taiga. He can be very funny, as in his account of the scruffy surroundings of Stonehenge and the battles between druids, hippies, police, and conservationists for control of the site; he is energetic, stimulating, self-contradictory, entertaining, sometimes provoking, and sometimes completely irrelevant. The effect brings to mind a small boy’s stamp album: lots of little brightly colored bits and pieces, lots of enthusiasm, but a few of the stamps are stuck in askew, or on the wrong page.

And so it all comes tumbling out. Nearly a hundred pages have passed before he draws breath long enough to ask himself what the word “heritage” means, only to declare that it “all but defies definition.” The truth is that, like many other people, he uses it in a variety of senses and it may be worth trying to sort a few of these out. Sometimes he speaks of heritage as a thing which all peoples of a certain place have in more or less equal measure, but when he remarks that “Italy is so stuffed with heritage that only a fraction of it is catalogued,” he must be referring to objects and buildings of high aesthetic or historical value—a wealth which sets Italy apart from less happy lands. Sometimes heritage seems to be a near synonym for conservation; this is presumably his meaning when he admits to being “a heritage activist myself,” otherwise a surprising confession from one who is so caustic about notions of heritage. Another sense of heritage is simply “what we’ve got”: when the British public is urged to guard its heritage by “saving” a Poussin or a Canova from deportation to Los Angeles, there is usually no pretense that these artifacts have been part of the national story, but it may still seem a pity to lose them. Then there is what might be called Grand Canyon heritage: a consciousness of owning magnificent landscape which may not be part of daily experience but which even if it is distant in space and remote in character from the places where most people…

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