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Approach and Research Program

The World Heritage (WH) Information Kit (UNESCO 2008: 5) states in the opening chapter: “Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. They are our touchstones, our points of reference, our identity.” Although much has changed since the introduction of the WH Convention in 1972, these sentences – more than 35 years later – make it clear: It is difficult to overcome some of the most problematic traditional ideas on heritage present from the beginning – and meanwhile somewhat outdated – in this most influential “authorized heritage discourse” (AHD). As Smith puts it in her seminal book on Uses of Heritage (2005: 300), “the subjectivity of this discourse is obscured not only by its association with objective expertise, but because of its characterization of heritage as a tangible and immutable ‘thing’ – its identification of heritage as ‘physical’ renders the values and ideologies the discourse represents as tangible and self evident.”

In 1994, the WH Committee had adopted the “Global Strategy” to make the WH list a more balanced, representative and credible instrument. This was the first step towards a renovation of the inherent heritage concept, away from the “Eurocentric” concentration on built monuments (“elitist architecture”), to include “sites that are outstanding demonstrations of human coexistence with the land as well as human interactions, cultural coexistence, spirituality and creative expression” (UNESCO 2008: 15). New types of sites were gradually developed, among which cultural landscapes (Taylor & Lennon 2012) and more recently the broadening of the concept of historic towns into historic urban landscapes. Despite these developments and the adoption of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003 (cf. Smith & Akagawa 2009), only in 2007 “Community” was added as the fifth C to the four existing Cs called “key strategic objectives” from 2002 (Credibility, Conservation, Capacity Building, Communication), now definitely admitting that heritage sites are often living und thus changing entities.

New issues of Critical Heritage Studies are currently unfolding (Harrison 2013) which focus not only on the involvement of nonhumans (“things”) and their agency in social networks, generating new aspects in material culture studies. Also they emphasize the processual character of heritage and the multiplicity of heritage discourses, the AHD – as a form of ‘heritage’ itself – being just one among them: „Heritage is a subjective political negotiation of identity; however, the processes that underpin and link identity to places or events of ‘heritage’ are often obscured by the nature of the AHD.“ (Smith 2005: 300). If there is a real chance for the AHD itself to be changed, it would probably ask for a systemic change – having in mind its continued legitimization of “dominant narratives about nation, class, culture and ethnicity”.

In the same vein, academic institutions and funding organizations started investing considerably into the implementation of the documentation and preservation of intangible heritage. An example of such endeavors is the development of language documentation projects and archives, which was established alongside a salient debate on the vanishing and endangered languages of the world. Considering languages not just as part of mankind’s intangible heritage, but as an invaluable source of knowledge and wisdom, their documentation and preservation was increasingly seen as tantamount to the institutionalized care of man’s cultural heritage by bodies such as UNESCO.

This may in principle be interesting and impressive when compared to the marginalization of the world’s minority cultures and languages in the colonial context, but the debates about the world’s (especially America’s, Africa’s and Australia’s) rich intangible heritage still seem to ignore the most fascinating aspect about them, namely their roles as parts of repertoires instead of ‘mother tongues’ and ‘ethnic heritage’. Most African languages, for example, are spoken by communities as one among several languages present on a daily basis (Lüpke & Storch 2013). Furthermore, there and in many other parts of the world, towns and villages have, since precolonial times, normally been composed of segments with diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, and their heritage very often is the heritage of a cultural landscape and situated in regional discourses. The persistence of diversity is amazing, and the possibilities of managing and organizing multiple repertoires and capacities seem to be as diverse as the cultures and languages themselves. However, this reality, which linguists, social and cultural scientists only begin to understand now, is a most problematic one for the established concepts of management and preservation of a group’s particular heritage. The questions that have begun to emerge in this context concern those of ownership, for example of a landscape, a language, or a ritual in a culturally and linguistically most diverse setting. If identities tend to be multiple, who defines the real stakeholders of what can be classified as heritage worthy to be listed or to be preserved? Moreover, the question of which competing cultural conceptualisations of community, boundaries and communication play a role in the way heritage is managed and seen today on a local basis has been brought into the discussion (e.g. Perley 2012).

The UoC Forum provides – in an open, flexible setting – a platform for an interdisciplinary, theory-and discourse-based debate on these issues.



Harrison, Rodney 2013. Heritage. Critical Approaches. London and New York: Routledge.

Harrison, R. et al. 2013. Reassembling the Collection. Ethnographic Museums and Indigenous Agency. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.

Labadi, S. & C. Long 2010. Heritage and Globalisation. London and New York: Routledge.

Luger, K. & K. Wöhler (edd.) 2010. Kulturelles Erbe und Tourismus. Rituale, Traditionen, Inszenierungen. Innsbruck: Studienverlag.

Lüpke, F. & A. Storch 2013. Repertoires and Choices in African Languages. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter.

Perley, Bernard C. 2012. Zombie linguistics: experts, endangered languages and the curse of undead voices. Anthropological Forum 22(2): 133–149.

Reuter, J. & A. Karentzos (edd.) 2012. >Schlüsselwerke der Postcolonial Studies. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

Shepherd, Nick (2008). Heritage. In: Shepherd, N. & S. Robins (edd.) New South African Keywords. Johannesburg and Athens: Jacana / Ohio UP, 116-128.

Smith , Laurajane 2005. Uses of Heritage. London and New York: Routledge.

Smith, L. & N. Akagawa 2009. Intangible Heritage. London and New York: Routledge.

Smith, L. et al. 2012. The Cultural Moment in Tourism. London and New York: Routledge.

Staiff, R. et al. 2013. Heritage and Tourism. Place, Encounter, Engagement. London and New York: Routledge.

Taylor, K. & J. Lennon 2012. Managing Cultural Landscapes. London and New York: Routledge.

UNESCO 2008. World Heritage Information Kit. Paris: UNESCO World Heritage Centre. (accessed 2.10.2013)