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Week Two: What is Heritage?

That’s a good question – and the subject of this week’s Oswestry Heritage Comics. When I first started this project last summer, I thought about titling it “Oswestry History” or “The Story of Oswestry” or something like that. But “history” – just like “archaeology” – is only one aspect of way in which we study and understand the past. I wanted the comics to have a wider scope than just looking at things which fit into the categories of “history” or “archaeology” – what about re-enactors? Are they “history” or “archaeology”. Not really. What about traditional arts and crafts, like signpainting on narrow boats? What about native plants, here since the end of the last ice age? What about geology or topography? What about footpaths and walks? What about art, music and drama? None of these things are “history” or “archaeology”, yet they all can fit into both the study and understanding of the past – and perhaps more importantly, are significant parts of appreciating the past.

The term “heritage” has come to mean many things in different contexts, ranging from a vague reference to “olden days” to specific ideas about traditional culture and ways of living. I find the term useful because it covers a wide range of ways in which people find meaning in the past. The Center for Heritage and Society at the University of Massachusetts has an interesting (if slightly wordy) definition of heritage on their “What is Heritage?” page:

Heritage is the full range of our inherited traditions, monuments, objects, and culture.  Most important, it is the range of contemporary activities, meanings, and behaviors that we draw from them.

Heritage includes, but is much more than preserving, excavating, displaying, or restoring a collection of old things.  It is both tangible and intangible, in the sense that ideas and memories–of songs, recipes, language, dances, and many other elements of who we are and how we identify ourselves–are as important as historical buildings and archaeological sites.

Heritage is, or should be, the subject of active public reflection, debate, and discussion.  What is worth saving?  What can we, or should we, forget?  What memories can we enjoy, regret, or learn from?  Who owns “The Past” and who is entitled to speak for past generations?  Active public discussion about material and intangible heritage–of individuals, groups, communities, and nations–is a valuable facet of public life in our multicultural world.

Heritage is a contemporary activity with far-reaching effects.  It can be an element of far-sighted urban and regional planning.  It can be the platform for political recognition, a medium for intercultural dialogue, a means of ethical reflection, and the potential basis for local economic development.  It is simultaneously local and particular, global and shared.

Heritage is an essential part of the present we live in–and of the future we will build.

My definition, in this week’s comic, is a bit shorter –

If history is about what happened in the past, then heritage is what we have of the past in the present. Heritage is more than just “the past” – it’s about how the past makes us who we are.

– but it conveys the same idea. I’ve tried to find a good way to describe the scope of this year’s Oswestry Heritage Comics – history, archaeology, narrow boat signpainting, native plants, old tracks and footpaths, geology, traditional arts and crafts: all of these things contribute towards making us who we are, and all of these things are our heritage.

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