Governing Heritage, Creating Legacies

Workshop in Exeter, 18-19 April 2023

A wonderful two days with participants from heritage institutions, museum professionals, universities, artistic and activist communities, and data activists.


Heritage (and patrimoine, in French), as a concept and practice, is hemmed in by law on one side and kinship on the other. Closely related to ‘inheritance’, it suggests valuable property that can be owned, enjoyed and transferred inter-generationally, and is protected by rules and institutions. When heritage gains official status, such rules are fully or partially determined, enforced and adjudicated by state institutions and their violation can lead to civil and criminal penalties. What can be inherited necessarily suggests exclusivity – property moves along bloodlines, assumes affinity and evokes affect or emotions.  

The notion of collective cultural property began to take shape in Britain in the late eighteenth century, with public efforts to catalogue, historicise and exhibit works of art, monuments and other artefacts deemed to be of cultural value, and possessed exclusively by the nation (Brewer, 1998). The essentials of the concept were already in place when an edition of Shakespeare’s plays was introduced in 1768 in this way:  

“The works of such great authors … are part of the kingdom’s riches; they are her estate in fame, … The following great productions stand foremost in the list of these literary possessions.” 

As scholars of heritage have noted, there has been a veritable heritage crusade ongoing since the 1980s, such that the traditional repertoire of literary, artistic and architectural works has now expanded beyond recognition to include everyday practices and skills, natural environments and even lifestyles. This expansion, and the contestations that go with it, are implicit debates about what a society values, and whose voices and choices matter. These debates are emotional and urgent because heritage assumes fragility alongside value; advocates are anxious about what may be irreplaceably lost (Lowenthal, 1998). And yet such advocacy may have its limits, since no matter how capaciously heritage is conceived, selection is inevitable, unless we accept that a map ought to be the same size as a country (Poulot, 2006, citing Borges, 1948). 

This workshop invites heritage professionals, artists and community activists to reflect upon these challenges in reference to their own work. We invite them to present their experiences and expertise along two principal lines, frameworks and futures. In this project, we are interested in statues in Britain and France associated with colonialism, but in this workshop we wish to learn more broadly from comparable experiences of defining, protecting, modifying and creating heritage. 


According to English Heritage, the 1940s saw the addition of industrial estates and country houses to its otherwise more uniform lists of castles, churches and manor houses. In 1966, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) defined the rights of individuals and groups to enjoy their own cultural heritage as a human right. In 1975the World Heritage Convention of multiple countries, including of the global south, met to recognise heritage of worldwide/humanity-wide significance.  

We invite experts to share their knowledge and experiences of the laws, rules, institutions and funding regimes that decide what can be considered heritage, how such heritage is classified and what protections variously classified heritage elements are entitled to. We also invite reflections of the barriers such frameworks impose on calls for change. 

Some questions we are interested in are: 

  • Listing and de-listing: What were the legal frameworks around the statues, plaques, plinths? Who were the owners, if any, and in what form? What were the relevant land laws, and covenants, if you know them? 
  • Decision-making authority: Who made the decisions for installation? When did discussions to modify or remove the statue begin? Who took the final decisions?  
  • Funds: Where did the funds come from, for operationalise the decisions? 
  • Challenges: What challenges have arisen in the course of trying to effectuate these decisions? 


Heritage is an awkward cousin of history; although both are about memory and about recalling the past, history records what is gone, whereas heritage celebrates something that is still alive. Heritage, then, is not so much about the past as an envisioned future, one for which legacies must be preserved and genealogies provided. 

We invite artists, activists and critical heritage workers to speak about their aims, rationale and methods in relation to specific projects. We shall also consider digital heritage activism in collaboration with Wikipedia. 

Some questions we are interested in are: 

  • Who forms your heritage community? 
  • What kinds of futures are made imaginable by your work? 
  • What kind of artistic and cultural expectations did you have to challenge or discard? 
  • What are the sources of creativity for you (ideas, stories, materials)? 


  • John Brewer, “Histories, Exhibitions, and Collections: The Invention of National Heritage in Britain 1770–1820,” Aufklärung , Vol. 10, No. 2, Nationalismus vor dem Nationalismus? (1998), pp. 11-22 
  • R. Harrison (and others) (eds.), Heritage Futures. Comparative Approaches to Natural and Cultural Heritage Practices (London, UCLPress, 2020) 
  • Dominique Poulot, Une histoire du patrimoine en Occident (XVIIIe-XXIe siècle): Du monument aux valeurs (Paris, PUF, 2006)  
  • David Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)