POSSESSED BY THE PAST by David Lowenthal


The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History
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 A keenly observant, if at times pretentious, exploration of identity politics writ large at the national level. What Lowenthal (Geography/University College, London) calls ``the cult of heritage'' is seen today in historical theme parks; museum and commemorative policy; child adoption; a booming illicit trade in art and antiquities; and most ominously, in xenophobia, racism, and genocide. Frequently heritage involves a national or ethnic trauma that needs to be recalled, such as the Holocaust for the Jews, the Potato Famine for the Irish, and the wars that kept Poland subjugated for years. At times, however, this emphasis sparks a kind of victim politics that brooks no disagreements and can even lead to a cycle of mutual grievances and bloodshed, as in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and the Middle East. Unlike history, Lowenthal notes, heritage makes no attempt at objectivity as it views the past with present-minded purpose. Heritage further deforms the past because it is ``popularized, commoditized and politicized,'' in the form of kitschy theme parks like Disney's aborted Historyland and the more ambitious if still somewhat misleading Williamsburg (where management is still uncertain how fully to depict slavery in this colonial capital). Lowenthal is especially canny about heritage as an all-consuming growth industry, noting that Stonehenge is now protected from predatory tourists by barbed wire. However, he has caught more than the net of his argument can reasonably hold (it's a wide range from essentially liberal curatorial issues to the horrors of genocide), and his prose aims for high-flown rhetoric when a little earthiness might have been helpful. Moreover, he never really shows the reader how to separate the wheat of heritage (its function as ``creative act'') from the chaff (the many faults he describes). Still, a provocative examination of how nations worship at, and are sometimes sacrificed on, the altar of memory.

Pub Date: Sept. 10th, 1996
ISBN: 0-684-82798-0
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Free Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1996