The Relationship between Heritage and Nation Building in Understanding Culture

In this course, we learned about the ‘imagined community’ and how communities and nations are formed from a shared sense of history, culture, and similar interests. I would like to build on this idea by linking the concepts of heritage and nation building towards understanding culture, based on another course I took last semester on heritage and culture.

Scholars have long established that heritage is typically employed by the nation to reinforce its citizens’ awareness of national identity (Graham and Howard 2008; Smith 2006). As Benedict Anderson argues, the nation is but an ‘imagined political community’ – that is, a socially constructed group that people perceive themselves to be members of. To sustain this belief of the nation’s existence among its citizens, as well as to justify its own authority and power, the government needs to constantly emphasise the existence of the nation as a distinct group that deserves to be recognised by the rest of the world – and it can achieve this goal through heritage. As concrete embodiments of a nation’s history, heritage not only serve as a tangible link between the past and the present, but also give “meaning, purpose and value” to the nation’s existence via an overarching story of the nation’s development throughout the ages (Lowenthal 1985). Themes of continual progress and growth are manipulated to resound within the official narrative, hence enabling people to feel a sense of entitlement and belonging to their country. It serves as a “tool of governance” in “defining and legitimising the identity, experiences and social/cultural standing” of both the authorities and certain groups of people in the nation (Smith 2006). Heritage thus operates as a powerful instrument that nations can employ to reinforce their identities.

In the process of crafting this interpretation, however, governments inevitably have to make sure that their chosen heritage is able to suit the overall historical framework in their nations. What gets selected, how it is interpreted, and how it is represented – all these are chosen based on present-centred needs of the nation (Graham and Howard 2008). Commemorating certain material culture or traditions as part of a nation’s history confers economic and political benefits such as better diplomatic relationships with nations as well as increased success in uniting diverse people through the creation of a shared past. This conscious and careful construction of the authorised discourse, however, would necessitate the exclusion or modification of certain events or narratives that do not merge smoothly into the overall narrative (Harvey 2008). This can range from downplaying the presence of cultural minorities to reshaping collective perceptions of past events in history. In this sense, the formation of national identity involves a constant tension between collective memory (which is concretely embodied by national heritage) and subaltern forms of memory (Smith 2006). Heritage, then, is hence an active political process of reconstruction and renegotiation in order to regulate and maintain a shared understanding about the past; a framework that sustains national identity within a country.

It will be interesting to use this framework to re-examine some of our readings, particularly “Living with the War Dead in Contemporary Vietnam” by Shaun Kingsley Malarney as well as “Producing the People: Exchange Obligations and Popular Nationalism” by Elizabeth G. Traube (from our Everyday Life textbook), and reconsider the role of heritage in nation building.

Graham, B. and Howard, P. (2008). Heritage and Identity. In Graham and Howard (eds). The Ashgate Research Companion to Heritage and Identity. Ashgate.
Harvey, D. (2008). The History of Heritage. In Graham and Howard (eds). The Ashgate Research Companion to Heritage and Identity. Ashgate.
Lowenthal, D. (1985). The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge University Press: 38-52.
Smith, L. (2006). Heritage as a Cultural Process. The Uses of Heritage.

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