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UCL Home  /  Geography  /  News & Events  /  News  /  News Archive  /  2011  /  June 2011  /  Prizing the past for the present and the future

Prizing the past for the present and the future

David Lowenthal: an award, a lecture and a conversation at the British Academy

Prizing the past for the present and the future

On 5th May Professor David Lowenthal was awarded a Certificate of Honor by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Center for Heritage & Society, for his “pathbreaking work in theorizing the significance of the past in the present, the relationship between history, memory, and heritage, and in teaching ... how cultural and natural heritage can help shape the future of the planet and all humanity”.

He also gave a keynote speech, Mediterranean islands: heritage that hurts, at the 2nd Islands Dynamics Conference, Valletta, Malta, on 11-15 May.

In London on 1st June, he discussed the value of cultural and natural heritage with Sir Simon Jenkins, Chairman of the National Trust, and Guardian and Evening Standard columnist, and an audience of over 100, as part of the British Academy Policy Centre's ongoing work on cultural heritage.

On the theme of Prizing the past for the present and the future, David spoke about the need to care for heritage, while outlining three apparent dangers in doing so. First, there is too much heritage – as the ‘beloved memory of the national past’, it now seems to include anything old. Then, it might be regarded as purely backward looking, stultifying the present – as if ‘we no longer make history, we simply protect it’. Finally, heritage is becoming valued in largely utilitarian and monetary terms.

The significance of heritage, however, is much wider than this. Prevailing views change between generations, but it is not something invented at any particular time. The present is inevitably pervaded by the past, so that heritage comprises all of each generation’s treasured knowledge. Both natural and cultural heritage are therefore bound together. The effectiveness of contemporary social institutions emerges from the accumulation of past events. Thinking about the future thus requires a proper appreciation of the importance of heritage. Each generation needs to renew its heritage, not simply by stewarding it, but also adding to and changing it. To appreciate our past to its full extent, we must acknowledge that heritage is a living and flexible body that needs continuous revision and addition to remain healthy and vibrant.

There was much agreement in the discussion, but Simon Jenkins challenged common attacks on the heritage ‘industry’ and the elitism of those who denigrate people’s enthusiasm for knowing more about the past of their local area or family. Among other topics, the discussion encompassed the necessity for authenticity in displaying heritage objects, but also recommended historically-informed restoration, copies and re-enactments that enable more people to engage with the importance of the past in their lives.