By Nira Wickramasinghe –
The state – actually a shifting complex of peoples and roles…– Herzfeld (1997: 5)
Walter Benjamin warned against the “appreciation of heritage”, describing it as a greater “catastrophe” than indifference or disregard (Mathur 2007: 168). Indeed, heritage can be considered an essentially present- centred cultural practice and an instrument of cultural power. It is as much about the production of the present as it is about the reproduction of a past.
The changing fortunes and popularity of places and sites indicate that no site is inherently valuable as heritage. There is therefore no heritage per se and all heritage, as Laurajane Smith argues, is intangible (2006: 3). What make sites valuable are the present-day cultural processes and activities that are undertaken around them. It is through these constitutive cultural processes that things and places are identified as possessing meaning and value. As we will see in the case of post-civil war Sri Lanka, the choice in valorisation reflects con- temporary cultural and social values, debates and aspirations (ibid: 3).
What then is the hegemonic discourse of heritage “which acts to constitute the way we think, talk and write about heritage”? (ibid: 11). This paper will explore the way this dis- course has evolved in a post-war situation and the extent to which it has validated a set of practices and performances that inhabit popular, expert and state constructions of heritage.
For the purpose of clarity, and although I recognise that this formulation does not sufficiently take into account overlapping trajectories, I would like to argue that there are at least two main routes to the past: history and heritage, which share many commonalities but differ in a fundamental way. The purpose is not to idealise history as the true, pure method of inquiry and exposition of the past. Records of the past are indeed filtered by time and what are bequeathed to us are only a few traces. Few would contest the fact that there is no objec- tive history where the voice of the author does not haunt the narrative. Most historians who admit that they cannot be ob- jective at least try to be impartial. But where historians differ from producers of heritage is in their appreciation of the past as a truth that while imperfect and unachieved, is yet more a truth than a faith or belief, fixed and devoid of ambiguities. Mostly, the historian tries to convey a past open to inspection and proof following certain protocols recognised by all mem- bers of the guild. But as Chakrabarty (2000: 29-36) has shown, there are many knowledge asymmetries in the academic world, with scholars from the South unable to access the data produced in the North and often expected by journals and publishers to refer to works by western authors while the converse is not demanded.
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*Nira Wickramasinghe is with the Modern South Asian Studies at Leiden University and the author of Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities (London: C Hurst and Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, 2006).This article was originally published at The Economic and Political Weekly – Vol – XLVIII No. 43, October 26, 2013 and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.