Review of ‘Heritage: Critical Approaches’ by Rodney Harrison and ‘The Nature of Heritage: The New South Africa’ by Lynn Meskell

06th November 2013

LR Harrison critical approaches - CopyHeritage: Critical Approaches, by Rodney Harrison, 2013, Routledge, Abingdon, 268 pp. ISBN 978-0-415-59197-3.
The Nature of Heritage: The New South Africa, Lynn Meskell, 2012, Wiley-Blackwell,  Chichester, 257 pp. ISBN 978-0-470-67072-9.

LR Meskell Nature of Heritage Wiley version 100dpReview by Keir Reeves

Federation University, PO Box 663, Ballarat Vic. 3350, Australia

Rodney Harrison’s Heritage: Critical Approaches is an important and timely addition to heritage studies. Drawing on his background as an academic, field-based practitioner and heritage expert in America, the United Kingdom and Australia, Harrison sets out to provide an overview for understanding the polymorphous nature of heritage in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. The critical theoretical and political turn in heritage studies is currently a topical one that Harrison describes as the discourse of heritage and refers to as the ‘discursive turn’ (p.9). In many respects, the discursive turn constitutes a reformulation of the discipline, as well as an overdue attempt to theorise the field. Harrison’s book stands above many other similar publications because it quite overtly uses case studies to explain complex conceptual positions about heritage and doesn’t eschew the importance of material culture, despite recent trends to embrace intangible heritage.

There are many ‘straw men’ in the still nascent field of heritage studies (like many emergent and recent disciplines), for instance criticism of the World Heritage Convention and the role of UNESCO agencies such as ICOMOS, yet Harrison resists them all, instead opting to provide a sustained analysis of critical heritage. Whereas some researchers invoke the need for theory as part of a hermeneutic discussion without contextualising the need for it, Harrison actually theorises and historicises Western epistemologies of heritage studies. In this respect, the approach of this book sits comfortably alongside Laurajane Smith and Emma Waterton’s recent work, as well as Smith and Logan’s edited series, Key Issues in Cultural Heritage.

Highlights of the book include the emphasis upon, and analysis of, crises in heritage that have occurred in recent decades, discussion of the antecedents of the World Heritage movement and the implications of the two World Heritage Conventions. In his chapter titled ‘Heritage and the Problem of Memory’, Harrison persuasively argues the need to open ‘the canonical status of heritage registers and lists to debate, in the hope that this will promote a more informed engagement’. A subtle criticism of the book, and this is more by way of an observation, is that some of the work regarding heritage and memory has already occurred in other academic conversations. Harrison’s discussion of commemoration would have benefited from an engagement with the memory work undertaken in historical studies and other allied disciplines.

This is a comprehensive book, thoughtfully structured into sections and clearly delineated conceptual chapters. It will be of great benefit for cultural heritage academics, archaeologists, historians, museologists, government heritage agencies, and both undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as those with a specialised lay interest in heritage strategies at grass roots and local government levels. Perhaps the wide audience reveals the underlying strength of this book, which is that it successfully seeks to connect seemingly disparate groupings within heritage studies with a view to bringing new meaning and critical appraisals to the field. Clearly Harrison has written an engaging and thoughtful book that raises many issues, including heritage and sustainability, human rights and also the democratised processes of heritage management that are best understood as problems in the present day. Pleasingly the book has been given a paperback edition, making it accessible for the wide range of audiences that it addresses. Too often the ubiquitous blue covers of many Routledge offerings seem destined (understandably for technical research-oriented books) for university library shelves, but in this instance the Press is to be commended for such a contemporary cover design.

Whereas Harrison’s Heritage: Critical Approaches is an overview of heritage and its present day manifestations, Stanford-based archaeologist Lynn Meskell’s Nature of Heritage, The New South Africa is, as its title and cover (of Karin Miller’s African Princess artwork) suggests, rooted in a close reading of South Africa. The book is also a meditation on the often difficult relationship between cultural and natural heritage, and the application of these values to present-day heritage policy and practice. This approach is understandable given that the premise of much of Meskell’s previous work has been on the importance of conceptualising contemporary archaeological practice as a kind of social practice, for example the contemporary cultural stance of Indigenous peoples.

The chapter titled ‘Thulamela: The Donors, the Archaeologist, his Gold and the Flood’ neatly encapsulates the three key themes of the book in an engaging field-based case study of the Iron Age archaeological site of Thulamela, situated in Kruger National Park. In this chapter Meskell deftly takes the reader through the redemptive possibility and ultimate failings of heritage as a reconciliation policy, and the triumph of natural values over cultural ones (a familiar theme observed internationally and often grounded in the institutional logic of bureaucratic policy regimes), as well as the commercial and socio-economic imperatives of the site.

Particularly moving is Meskell’s lament that the decline of the site is ‘the material evidence of disregard for a decade-old project of rehabilitation and reconciliation: that too seems strangled by weeds’ (p.174). The author’s questioning of her role, and that of others, in the field during the process of excavating, conserving, interpreting and sustaining Thulamela as an archaeological cultural heritage site is important and sobering reading for cultural heritage practitioners and field-based researchers of all disciplinary persuasions. Moreover, Meskell’s insightful book ultimately paints a bleak picture of the current state of natural and cultural heritage in South Africa. This is an outlook that seems to reflect her own observation that the mid-1990s political potential of Rainbow Nation enthusiasm for a reconstituted nation has faded and, in turn, has been replaced by the rhetoric of making heritage pay and the ‘real discovery in South Africa, that natural ecologies supplanted peopled histories and contemporary social urgencies despite the widespread calls for historical justice, education and African pride, and the benefit sharing that Mandela inspired South Africans to forge’ (p.204).

There are two paradoxes that interweave these two books. The first is that Harrison’s broad overview that develops ‘three interlinked themes—connection, materiality and dialogue—as ways of thinking about what heritage is and does in contemporary societies’, actually provides a conceptual touchstone for site specific heritage practice and policy in the present day (p.227). Conversely, Meskell’s book examines the relationship between nature and heritage by explicitly focusing on South Africa, particularly Kruger National Park, yet in the process offers a much wider assessment of cultural heritage and the raison d’etre of field-based research in contested sites in the early decades of the twenty-first century. Fittingly, both authors conclude their respective books with potential pathways to deal with future crises in heritage.

Keir Reeves
A review of 'Heritage: Critical Approaches' by Rodney Harrison and 'The Nature of Heritage: The New South Africa' by Lynn Meskell
Dec 2013
Book Reviews
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