“HERITAGE IS NOT HISTORY” - David Lowenthal
“Heritage should not be confused with
history. History seeks to convince by truth… Heritage exaggerates and omits,
candidly invents and frankly forgets, and thrives on ignorance and error… Prejudiced
pride in the past… is its essential aim. Heritage attests our identity and
affirms our worth.”
David Lowenthal “Fabricating Heritage”, History & Memory Volume 10, Number 1. See the full article at:
David Lowenthal's description of the historical
method on pages 214-219 in The Past is a
Foreign Country. You will see that Lowenthal is
very critical of the objectivity of history. He knows that history does not
represent the 'totality of the past', but acknowledges that it cannot, as so
much happened in the past. History, thus is a
narrative of selected events. Still, he says its methods enable us to have a
reasonably accurate interpretation or representation of the past through the
study of the remnants of the past such as documents. Debate and arriving at a
consensus about what happened in the past, he sees, help make history an
objective endeavour, although arriving at an
objective account of the past is difficult. Interestingly, some of the
accusations about exaggeration in heritage are also levelled
at history by Lowenthal.
The Modern idea of Heritage
Today, buildings, artifacts, and other remnants of the past are seen as being vital threads in the collective memories of communities.
These remnants of the past enable individuals to affirm their identity as part of a community or group as their memories form part of the larger communities’ memories.
They share a common collective memory of the same place.
Memory of the past and identity are thus inextricably linked.
The Modern idea of Heritage is a
“Only in this generation has saving the tangible past become a major global enterprise.
Vestiges of the past, whole, dismembered, or discernable only in traces, lie everywhere around us, yet throughout history men have mainly overlooked most of these remnants.
Taking their collective material inheritance much for granted, they have allowed antiquity to survive, to decay, or to disappear as the laws of nature and the whims of their fellow men dictated.”
David Lowenthal, The Past is A Foreign Country (1985)
Recreating the Past and Heritage
The central thesis of David Lowenthal’s work is that the past cannot be re-created.
All that modern re-creations of the past do is produce a representation of history that is shaped by present-day concerns.
Tour operators and “restorers” of heritage sites trying to re-create the past do so according to what they think tourists want to experience or what they believe their intended audience thinks may have happened there. They deliberately package the past for their visitors’ brief stay.
The visit becomes a non-durable consumer commodity, albeit an intangible one, in which the tourists pay for the time they spend surrounded by exhibits or sites selected, packaged, and presented for them.
process means that in representing the past, aspects of it are emphasised while other events may be downplayed, or left
out entirely of the narrative presented for the visitors’ consumption.
Heritage for Dollars: Tourism
Tourism Board’s promotion of
The central issue of David Lowenthal’s work is that the past cannot be recreated, because circumstances are continually changing.
Indeed, in the very act of trying to return an item to its original state so-called conservators are actually compromising the historical authenticity of an item.
Historians appreciate that we cannot recapture the past and they are the ones trained in history and its methods to explain this to others.
The Fabrication of Heritage in
the 1980s, the so called heritage areas of
In the 1990s, these heritage areas were placed under conservation acts by the URA. Then the Tourism Board began to publicise them as heritage to foreign visitors.
the 1990s, the Tourism Board began to massively intervene in these areas and
promote and redevelop them as part of the theme of exotic
It was only in the 1990s that the areas became seen as part of the fabric of nation building in the history and social studies syllabuses.
Heritage in the School Textbook
Heritage is seen as the cultural and spacial expression of the major ethnic groups of
There is also the odd figure of Raffles as founder, representing the British colonial past as heritage.
Heritage is Often Contested
What appears heritage to one group of people may not be considered heritage according to others.
>The old “ethnic” quarters of
Lowenthal’s ideas on heritage help us explain why there have been these arguments.
Heritage as “tales” and “stories” about a place
The heritage of a place has little to do with historical accuracy.
It has more to do with “tales” and “stories” that have been invented or embellished.
Often these have been orally passed down from generation to generation.
Place and Heritage?
“Buildings are the chief catalyst of collective historical identity because they seem intrinsic to their surroundings and outlast most other relics. But preservation interest also embraces manuscripts and motor cars, silent films and steam engines; many if not most household objects are cherished for the sense of heritage, of antiquity, of continuity their presence confers.”
David Lowenthal, Past is a Foreign Country, 1985.
Place and Heritage in
“Heritage refers to legacies of the past conserved in some fashion in the present to pass on to future generations. Heritage landscapes are thus the concrete and visible repositories of the nation’s common memories and traditions, providing threads of continuity between past, present and future. The selective fixing of history into landscape marks a ‘circuit’ of memory.. that not only gives form and shape to the nation’s life story, but does so in ways which mask the artifice and ideological nature of its content. By remembering the nation’s past in concrete form, heritage landscapes provide us with the everyday material basis for the on-going task of nation-building .”
Peggy Teo, et al, Changing Landscapes of Singapore, 2004, p.108.
Is Place Heritage?
The problem with associating a place with heritage is that often it does not represent the past accurately.
- Chinese heritage is
- Indian heritage is Little India
- Kampong Glam is Malay Heritage
But these places had many different people from different ethnic groups.
The Ethnic Quarters as Heritage
Chinatown has had large numbers of Chettair (Indian money leaders) owning land in it –
Kampong Glam has had Chinese communities within its precincts.
Large numbers have lived outside these areas.
Geylang and its
Large numbers of Chinese have lived outside of Chinatown for most of
There have been other concentrations of Indians besides “Little India”, eg Chulia Kampong and later Sembawang.
A good short account of how heritage has been invented and contested in
Heritage: Remembering a Divided Past
Only recently has the different ethnic heritage of the various
communities been celebrated as part of nation building. In the
1960s, and 1970s, the government of
Remembering a Divided Past
“[In] the late fifties and early sixties…various sections of our
population at that time were gathered in different pockets distinguishable by
their racial or dialect groups. The Malays, for example, were concentrated in Geylang Serai, Eunos and a few other areas. The Indians were gathered in
“Each group was fiercely proud of its own identity and defended its narrow interests stoutly. Each clung to its own clan or dialect community for security. There was no social cohesion. We were a divided society.”
“The massive public housing effort gave us the opportunity to mix the population. We made sure that every HDB new town and estate had a balanced mixture of racial groups.”
Lowenthal's Ideas on Recreating the Past in the Context of Singapore: Bugis Street and Dick Lee
In Singapore, with the fast past of change, preserving and recreating the past presents particular problems. There are examples of how in Singapore, there have been attempts to recreate the past that have not worked out. Linked here is discussion of a few examples that are explored through documentary film. These include Bugis Street as an example of why we cannot recreate the past. Also included is Dick Lee’s discussion about Asian modernity and change in Singapore.
There is also a documentary on the last days of the Chinatown's Hokkien Quarter linked here. It shows in 1994, the remaining old people with their traditional small businesses which gave the area its character as 'living heritage', who are to move on to make way for redevelopment. The old people following many trades that are vanishing talk about their lives and how there is little future for them and their trades once they leave. The Hokkien Quarter is a shadow of its former busy self when Chinatown was a bustling place with lots of street hawkers and markets. The lack of people means a lack of business. The image given is that the place has kind of fossilised. Once the old Chinatown with its lively markets and street hawkers was closed down in 1983, the decline of the Hokkien Quarter was inevitable. The traditional businesses would not survive in a place that had became a ghost town awaiting urban redevelopment. What happened to the Hokkien Quarter and its traditional trades illustrates that in some circumstances the past cannot be even preserved beyond perhaps the built heritage - the buildings. But oddly many of these charming buildings were knocked down to create the modern shopping mall, known as China Square, which stretches over several blocks of where much of the Hokkien Quarter used to be.
What is the case for preserving what we see in the 1994 documentary that shows the last days of the Hokkien Quarter? Once an area becomes a former shell of itself can the past be recreated? Looking at the Hokkien Quarter in 1994, is it possible to recreate the past or the keep the area just so that we can imagine the past? For some of the old residents, they are clearly poor or living in poverty. Some academics studying heritage often say that 'poverty is a great preserver of heritage'. Do you think that is what is happening in 1994 in the old Hokkien Quarter?