Uncommon Language: Reflections on the Heritage Exchange

I was one of ten early career researchers invited to attend the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Heritage Exchange on 14-15th July, a conference which aimed to address the present and future role of heritage in society. I was hoping that there would be conversations about marginalised heritage and the powerful role that heritage projects can play in combating social justice, but this did not emerge as one of the main themes. However, much of the discussion from panellists and audience members indirectly linked to the way the history of same-sex love is represented through the heritage industry.

One of these main themes was cohesion and common language, which was bought up in the advance provocation papers and in a paper on the first evening by John Holden and Robert Hewison. The issue of a lack of common language and cohesion in heritage was also discussed in papers by Mike Clarke and Gillian Tett, and was discussed during the Q&A sessions.

The main point on lack of common language was that ‘heritage’ has complex and varying definitions to different people – to those who work in the built environment, in the natural environment, for community groups and in academia, heritage and what it means differs significantly. With the lack of common language comes a lack of cohesion. Moreover, both Clarke and Baroness Kay Andrews highlighted that ‘heritage’ itself lacks meaning in comparison to the same or similar words in different languages. Clarke noted the French ‘patrimoine’ has a deeper meaning than ‘heritage’, and “reflects the role of heritage in creating a sense of place and, in turn, at the level of individual person, starts to touch on issues of identity and self.”[1] Baroness Andrews used the Welsh ‘cynefin’, which means “a place or time where we instinctively feel most connected” to explain a more complex and in depth use of ‘heritage’.[2]

While this lack of common language does not directly affect the public history of same-sex love, it reminded me of the lack of cohesion and common language used in public (and academic) histories of same-sex love. I use the phrase ‘same-sex love’ in my research (and LGBT when referring to the community today), but in one given chapter I might also have to use the phrases ‘LGBT’, ‘LGBTQ’, ‘GLBT’, ‘homosexual’, ‘lesbian’, ‘queer’, ‘bisexual’, ‘gay’ (and the list could continue) because these are the phrases used in public history representations of same-sex love: in museum interpretation panels, printed guides and conversations with museum staff. These different words, like ‘heritage’, can take on different meanings to different groups and individuals. Particularly more so than ‘heritage’, words relating to same-sex love represent an individual’s self-identity, and it is not the place of public history to tell individuals what they can or cannot describe themselves as.

I’ve written about the complexities of language in representing same-sex love before, but attending Heritage Exchange made me think how little common language there is in public history generally. The impact is that the heritage of the LGBT community and the history of same-sex love both employ a multitude of phrases and a distinct lack of common language. While the heritage industry cannot have one definitive meaning of ‘heritage’, the representation of same-sex love does not use one common descriptor or label. However, HLF allows ‘heritage’ to be self-defined by applications, which is particularly important to marginalised community groups today. Having been marginalised throughout history, it is the decision of the community group in question to decide on their own identity, and what their heritage means to them.

The lack of common language, then, is not necessarily a negative thing. Although it makes the industry less cohesive, the lack of definitive interpretations of what heritage is makes heritage projects creative, original and multi-faceted in their meanings. It’s these things that make researching heritage projects and public history so fascinating– no one project is the same.[3]

[1] Dr. Mike Clarke,’Re-inventing Heritage A disruptive opportunity?‘ (2014), p. 4

[2] Baroness Kay Andrews, Re-imagining Heritage Perspectives Panel, (July 15 2014), HLF Heritage Exchange

[3] Papers and footage from the Heritage Exchange are available on the website

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