What about heritage?

Heritage is what we inherit from those who came before us, but it's also what we choose to make and preserve of that inheritance. When we look at heritage - museums, historic sites, memorials, even intangible heritage like dances and folklore - we see how a culture conceives of itself. 

My research examines how this cultural self-conception works for societies recovering from conflict; in particular, I want to know how states produce heritage and what they make it do in post-conflict reconstruction. I study how these national governments take heritage, which is often thought of as "merely" cultural, and put it to work for economic development, building national identity, and even changing international relations. This is heritage as an element of statecraft, and it works within power systems on national and global scales.

 

Why does it matter?

In and of itself, heritage is worth studying because it tells us how we think about ourselves. As people inheriting a world made by those who came before us, how we interpret, alter, view, or even retroactively construct that inheritance is meaningful.

But heritage is also part of practical processes like economic development and tourism; making communities and nations cohere through a shared history and identity; and negotiating politics and inequalities in the public sphere. An increasing number of societies are deploying heritage for these functions as part of reconstruction after conflict. 

My research suggests that heritage can not only be one of a post-conflict state's tools as it rebuilds within its borders. I argue that heritage can also shape a country's international relations. I show that heritage is essential, for example, to building the concept of "dignity" in Rwanda. This idea affects how the Rwandan government interprets sovereignty and policy space, and therefore how it interacts with other countries as aid donors, critics, or members of international governing organizations like the UN. How Rwanda relates to these international powers, in turn, offers an example to other Global South countries in a similar situation.

So heritage is not something that matters only to academics or people who visit museums, nor is it a luxury for the rich. It's part of dynamic processes of power all over the globe which shape how our world looks today and how it will look in the years to come.