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Heritage agnosticism: a third path for the

study of cultural heritage

Avoiding the pitfalls of both the reverential approach of ‘heritage belief’ and the overly critical one of ‘heritage
atheism’, ‘heritage agnosticism’ is proposed as a theoretical middle path for the burgeoning field of heritage studies.
The cases of Kyoto and the UNESCO World Heritage arena demonstrate the limits of a purely deconstructive
analysis. The popular demand for historical veracity and authenticity, lay historicities, the ethnographic study
of heritage institutions, and personal attachments to heritage are research topics that will benefit from heritage
agnosticism, particularly if it accounts for the full variety of both professional and lay positions and voices.

Key words cultural heritage, Japan, Kyoto, UNESCO World Heritage, authenticity


Devotion to heritage is a spiritual calling… (Lowenthal 1996: 1)

I continue to stand in amazement before the boom of scholarly interest in cultural heritage.
New books, conferences, university programmes, journals, associations and mailing lists are
announced by the month, and my own anthropological research too enjoys heightened
attention since it deals with cultural heritage and its supreme global arbiter, UNESCO.
Of course, this reflects the growing significance and expanding scope of cultural heritage
in wider society, perhaps with the usual slight delay, but when the inaugural conference
of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies in Gothenburg 2012 attracts no less than
500 paper proposals, this is a clear sign of a new discipline in the making.
The growing field is in need of solid theoretical underpinnings, however, and in the
following, I will propose what I call heritage agnosticism as such an approach. I think that
it promises to steer clear of two antagonistic extremes, those of heritage belief (an essen-
tially affirmative position that seeks to sustain heritage and its conservation as intrinsically
valuable) and of heritage atheism (an essentially critical position that seeks to undermine
heritage), which have dominated previous inquiries to an unhealthy degree, often in tacit,
ill-acknowledged ways. Heritage agnosticism, by contrast, leaves the effects of heritage
and their valuation as an open question for empirical investigation. After pointing out
in more detail what I mean with these positions, I shall spell out a few of the consequences
for anthropological and other social scientific research, and sketch several promising
topics for whose study heritage agnosticism is particularly suited.

Heritage belief

Heritage believers, in my definition, are people who are tacitly or explicitly committed
to cultural heritage in general or to specific heritage items of whose intrinsic value they

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are convinced and whose conservation they endorse. They see heritage as a good thing,
either in and of itself or for serving other desirable ends such as education, economic
development, nation building, reconciliation or world peace. This must not necessarily
be deep personal conviction; it may just be the consequence of being employed or
funded by an institution that itself is premised on heritage belief and would not tolerate
an openly dissenting position. Of such institutions, there are plenty in modern socie-
ties, given that the belief in wholesale cultural revolutions and the necessity to wipe
out the old no longer is what it was, say, in the 1960s and 1970s. The world over,
heritage belief is a mainstream position now, and while there are a thousand reasons
for public institutions to downsize their actual conservation efforts, few would go so
far as to question the principal value of heritage. Heritage belief as such does not rule
out critical scholarly enquiry; on the contrary, the large majority of research on specific
heritage categories and items in such fields as art history, architectural history or
archaeology is based on an affirmative stance to what is being studied but nonetheless
involves the full deployment of critical scholarship. Heritage belief also does not rule
out an awareness of the historic contingency of specific heritage valuations. Knowing that
Caravaggio’s works were much less esteemed a century ago, for example, need not under-
mine a belief in the intrinsic greatness of Baroque painting. The affirmative stance is often
implicit, but why art historians spend much more time on Gothic cathedrals than on, say,
1970s cinema multiplexes is so self-evident to them that it need not be expressed.
I find this comparable to the special status of theology as a scholarly discipline.
Much of the research in this field leaves nothing to be desired in terms of intellectual
standards and of the application of hermeneutical rigour. Nonetheless, it rests on the
basic tenets of Christian dogma such as the existence and goodness of God which
may, again, be left implicit in the respective study but must not be questioned. At least
in Germany, the Roman Catholic church reserves the right to revoke the teaching
licences of open dissenters, with Hans Küng and Eugen Drewermann being prominent
cases. (As state-employed and tenured university professors, they continued to teach,
but not Roman Catholic theology.) Also, theology graduates who then move on to
clerical positions are expected to publicly uphold these tenets, whatever may become
of their private beliefs in the course of time.

Heritage atheism and the standard assumptions of critical heritage research

Despite, or perhaps because of, the hegemonic position of heritage belief in wider
society, much work in the social sciences is informed by heritage atheism. By this I
mean a fundamental doubt about the value of specific heritage items or heritage as such.
In this view, heritage is not a naturally positive force and instead serves all kinds of
dubious or outright objectionable purposes that, however, are not immediately obvious.
The chief task of the researcher, then, is to tear the mask off the face of heritage and see it
for what it really is – which, invariably, is something uglier than it is made out to be. In
particular, heritage is routinely assumed to contribute to four social processes that I have
elsewhere called falsification, petrification, desubstantiation and enclosure (Brumann
2009): it obscures or beautifies the less presentable parts of history; it artificially arrests
cultural change, suppressing creativity and innovation; it empties things and practices of
their substantive content, leaving only the heritage label; and – the often most damning

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verdict – it supports the self-elevation of the national, ethnic, religious, status or local
group recognised as owning, carrying or having produced the specific heritage item, to
the disadvantage of other such groups. Often, these groups are not experientially obvious
but rather ‘imagined’ communities (Anderson 1983) whose totality of members one
cannot hope to meet in person, and reference to shared heritage then serves to boost social
cohesion. The groups in question can also be elite groups: heritage is assumed to celebrate
the usually more enduring and impressive vestiges of the dominant classes, making for
‘Thatcherism in period dress’ (Samuel 1994: 290), and when it is commercialised, it
excludes all those who cannot afford to pay for it. Heritage professionals are a special kind
of elite group, as is the main point of Laurajane Smith’s widely quoted formulation of the
‘authorised heritage discourse’ or ‘AHD’ (2006): more than anything else, she claims, the
heritage tag puts specialised institutions and experts in control, even against their own best
intentions, while everyone else – including the producers and carriers of the heritage
things and practices and their descendants – is relegated to the side lines. (For a slightly
different understanding of ‘enclosure’ that highlights the productivity of heritage for
carving out ever new ‘packages’ from reality, see Collins 2011.)
The concerns with falsification and enclosure are combined in a slightly older line
of research on traditions and their social uses, most strongly taken up by historians and
anthropologists, which is somewhat of an overlooked ancestor to critical heritage stud-
ies, mainly because of the different master term. Despite a number of precursors and
parallel formulations (Chamberlain 1912; Williams 1961: 66–74; Eisenstadt 1973;
Handler and Linnekin 1984: 276), Hobsbawm and Ranger’s volume on the ‘invention
of tradition’ (1983) has been most influential here. Nationalist touchstones such as the
British coronation ceremony or the Scottish kilt (designed by an Englishman) are
shown to be recent creations rather than the ages-old relics they are made out to be,
with the historical facts being buried underneath layers of selective and more or less
conscious amnesia. Clearly, the zeal to deconstruct such fictions is carried by atheist
impulses towards the church of high nationalism.
Atheism is even more clearly present when beyond these and similar assumptions,
heritage adulation is seen as a general societal ill, as in these quotations from authors
who are often referred to as the founding fathers of critical heritage studies:

History is gradually bent into something called Heritage … My criticism is not

simply that it is largely focused on an idealized past whose social values are those
of an earlier age of privilege and exploitation that it serves to preserve and bring
forward into the present. My objection is that Heritage is gradually effacing
history, by substituting an image of the past for its reality. (Hewison 1989: 21)

Yet this pastiched and collaged past, once it has received the high gloss of presen-
tation … succeeds in presenting a curiously unified image, where change, conflict
and clashes of interest are neutralized within a single seamless and depthless
surface, which merely reflects our contemporary anxiety. (Hewison 1989: 22)

Under the rubric of heritage ever more is revered in theory and ruined in
practice. (Lowenthal 1996: xii)

Worship of a bloated heritage invites passive reliance on received authority,

imperils rational inquiry, replaces past realities with feel-good history, and saps
creative innovation. (Lowenthal 1996: 12)

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Prejudiced pride in the past is not a sorry consequence of heritage; it is its

essential purpose. (Lowenthal 1996: 122)

Heritage thrives on persisting error. (Lowenthal 1996: 130)

… we contrive a heritage exclusive to and biased in favor of ourselves.

(Lowenthal 1996: 143)

One important characteristic of post-modern heritage has been its unnerving

ability to deny historical process, or diachrony. Heritage successfully mediates
all our pasts as ephemeral snapshots exploited in the present, to embellish
decaying cityscapes, and to guarantee the success of capital in its attempt to
develop new superfluous markets. (Walsh 1992: 149)

Society, the choice of wording clearly implies, would be better off without heritage;
and in this sense, these formulations do not differ from what an atheist would have
to say about the value of beliefs in God.

Atheism tested: Kyoto urban traditions and the UNESCO World

Heritage arena

In a large number of studies, particularly the more fleeting and text-based ones, the
ingredients of heritage atheism, in particular the assumptions of falsification, petrifica-
tion, desubstantiation and enclosure, are often the expected result, the default mode
which to confirm yet another time can be the sole analytic ambition. This is not least
so because often enough, they simply apply, and heritage display is just that – thin,
instrumental and exclusionist. Yet even when one should all but expect the contrary,
reality may be more complex, as I would like to demonstrate with reference to Kyoto
and UNESCO World Heritage.
The Japanese city of Kyoto in which I conducted ethnographic fieldwork between
1998 and 2011 is widely seen as the country’s principal koto (old city) and the stronghold
of everything held dear in terms of national tradition. It has in fact been shown that key
components of Kyoto’s heritage – or Japanese heritage believed to be most strongly rooted
in Kyoto – such as the tennô (Fujitani 1996), the geishas (Okada 2010) or the tea ceremony
(Surak 2012) acquired their contemporary significance and historical aura only in relatively
recent times, so that an ‘invention of tradition’ perspective is justified. Yet for two
cherished traditions of the inner-city area historically carried by merchants and craftspeo-
ple – the traditional town houses (kyô-machiya) that are now widely re-appreciated and
renovated for modern purposes and the Yamaboko junkô, a parade of 32 floats that marks
the climax of the Gion matsuri festival on every 17th July – the atheist assumptions have
only limited explanatory purchase (Brumann 2009, 2012b: 91–208).
The origin story of the festival is a posthumous fabrication. However, there are no
attempts at whitewashing the past. Its – in these two cases – rather classist and patriarchal
aspects, perhaps because the two traditions have well-documented histories of many
centuries, do not require much embellishment to be impressive. Petrification does not
fully apply either since in the currently ongoing renaissance of the houses the creative
combination of traditional settings with modern design elements and purposes is widely
accepted as legitimate and much more common than the museum-style ‘freezing’

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conservation favoured by state heritage institutions. Because of its listing and funding as na-
tional heritage, the Yamaboko junkô – probably the most famous festival of Japan – is under
greater pressure to keep things as they are, but even here participating neighbourhoods
insist on the use of original artwork instead of the copies of worn pieces that would conserve
outward appearances more perfectly. There is not much desubstantiation either, since the
kyô-machiya are most cherished for their beauty, special atmosphere, natural materials
and gardens, all qualities that have little to do with the heritage status and much more with
the comparative deficiencies of modern-day housing. In the festival too, participants
highlight the fun of being involved, the beauty of the floats and the religious blessings it
brings, rather than contributing to the display of cultural heritage, a role they are aware
of but not particularly excited about or proud of.
Enclosure too is hard to come by. If at all, the kyô-machiya boom has made the
houses more accessible to everyone and blurred former status distinctions between
the houses, and instead of being elevated to a local or national symbol, facades are more
likely to be graced by a foreign national flag, for example an Italian one when there is a
pizzeria inside the renovated structure. In the festival, support through tax money
rather than a few wealthy neighbourhood households as in the past has undermined
the former strict hierarchies between house owners, mere renters and live-in
employees. Formerly subaltern groups such as the musicians sitting on many of the
huge floats hold their own now, pushing through even the admission of women as full
participants. As with the houses, a nationalist loading of the festival cannot be
ascertained, and since so many of the festival paraphernalia are foreign imports from
past centuries, it is not a likely candidate for such purposes to begin with.
The limited applicability of the four assumptions in this case is in my view related
to the urban setting (Brumann 2009: 291–3). Rural heritage in Japan, just as elsewhere,
lends itself more easily to appropriations by outsiders – themselves often urbanites –
who then stylise it into timeless tradition and the pristine wellspring of national
consciousness and virtues. Yet given that wealth, power and cultural resources are usually
more densely concentrated in cities, it is more difficult to wrest interpretive control from
urban heritage carriers and to install a uniform discourse in the first place. Also, the
refined creativity and eclecticism characteristic of both contemporary kyô-machiya
renovations and the formative period of the Yamaboko junkô back in the late Middle Ages
require the sophistication of urbanites to be fully appreciated. As spelt out more fully
elsewhere (Brumann 2009: 293–4), I find comparative evidence for such a connection in
the revitalisation of vernacular architecture in Beijing, the Moroccan medinas and pre-
revolutionary Damascus and in another world-famous urban festival, the Palio of Siena
in Tuscany, but am sure that there are more parallels in cities elsewhere.
Let me explore the standard assumptions for a second ethnographic field, the
UNESCO World Heritage convention and its decision-making bodies. World
Heritage has experienced a phenomenal rise and is now a supreme mark of distinction
for global tourism, local and national prestige, and funding agencies. Inscriptions on
the prestigious list that includes 981 properties (or series of properties) in 160 countries
as of 2013 can move millions of Euros and, if a perfect nomination file is aimed for,
often also cost as much. In view of the efforts that ambitious nation states make for
further listings, it is tempting to see yet another gold-medal race between nations here.
Even when acknowledging that it takes place in a civilised and peaceful framework, this
should be a perfect instance of enclosure then, particularly since 2010 when it has
become common practice for member states of the World Heritage Committee to

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support on a tit-for-tat basis even the weakest and most problematic bids for further
listings (Brumann 2011, 2012a, forthcoming; Meskell 2012, 2013).
Yet the World Heritage Convention remains based on a universalist ethos that,
other things equal, none of the key players in that arena would challenge. The conven-
tion is the first institutionalised scheme of heritage conservation that does not, tacitly or
explicitly, exclude anyone; instead, all humankind shares rights and duties in that
choice selection of properties supposed to have ‘outstanding universal value’
(‘OUV’). As with all UN bodies, the Committee as the governing body of the conven-
tion lacks coercive powers and must rely on the respective nation state to implement its
decisions. Where that state’s other concerns such as economic development are strong
enough, this has only limited effect. Yet when Committee pressure resonates with
national or local public opinion, it has achieved more, such as the modification or
abandonment of high-rise projects in Cologne, Vienna, Riga or St. Petersburg. It is diffi-
cult to read a simple message of enclosure into these incidents, since in all these cases
Committee decisions clearly backed those forces who resisted mainstream political and
development interests, that is the subaltern rather than the hegemonic side of these battles.
Universalist goals have also greatly modified what is recognised as cultural heritage
within the World Heritage framework, which in turn has had a considerable influence
on heritage policies world-wide. Unrestrained grabbing by the Western European
states and a few motivated others led to a list dominated by palaces, cathedrals and
historic town centres, and provoked charges of Eurocentrism as early as in the 1980s.
Attempts to impose nomination quotas or moratoriums on well-represented states
have always met resistance among at least some Committee member states, however,
so that countermeasures have instead sought to redefine heritage in more inclusive
ways to clear the path for the heritage have-nots. Authenticity criteria were widened
in the ‘Nara Document’ of 1994 (
event-833-3.pdf) to also accommodate authentic use, spirit and feeling, not just the ma-
terial fabric that privileges the durability of Western-style stone monuments. The
‘Global Strategy’ adopted in the same year called for a better representation of living
heritage and of everyday culture ‘in their broad anthropological context’
(document WHC-94/CONF.003/INF.6, see
htm#debut, accessed 8 April 2014). New heritage categories were introduced, most im-
portantly in 1992 that of ‘cultural landscapes’ where the interaction between humans
with their environment is key (Fowler 2003; Mitchell et al. 2009), even when it is of
such a spiritual nature that it hardly leaves any physical traces. Industrial sites,
vernacular architecture, trade and pilgrimage routes, railway lines and canals, twentieth-
century architecture and ‘negative heritage’ associated with atrocities or forced
migration have become much more likely to be nominated and listed, whereas palaces
and cathedrals are rarer now. Wooden peasant churches in the Carpathians, a Polynesian
chief’s domain or sacred groves in Africa would have a harder time to get on the list
without this development. Also, the accumulated dissatisfaction in the Global South
greatly boosted UNESCO efforts to honour intangible cultural heritage too, leading to
the adoption of a separate convention in 2003 that has likewise proved to be immensely
popular (Bortolotto 2007, 2011b; Smith and Akagawa 2009; Arizpe 2011; Arizpe and
Amescua 2013). Not all this reconceptualisation was spearheaded by UNESCO and the
World Heritage institutions, but their imprimatur for things brought in by the nation
states has been significant, and at least the cultural landscapes category was largely the
World Heritage institutions’ brainchild (cf. also Gfeller 2013).

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H E R I TA G E A G N O S T I C I S M 179

National heritage systems intent on protecting their World Heritage stakes must play
along, and this forces even time-honoured conservation systems like the European ones
to rethink their fundamentals. Since the usual suspects among World-Heritage-hungry
nation states – Western European and East Asian countries and Mexico – are the quickest
to adapt because of their superior financial and other resources, the numerical distribution
of the listed properties over the larger world regions has not changed dramatically, yet
what is conceived as World Heritage is certainly more diverse and inclusive today and
has more space for non-European, non-monumental heritage. In this sense then, the
enclosure hypothesis is not borne out, and neither is that of petrification: current World
Heritage regulations and authenticity standards have become much more tolerant of
gradual change within the properties than previous versions that much more strongly
presupposed things cast in stone (Brumann 2013).

Heritage agnosticism as a third path

The two cases of Kyoto vernacular traditions and UNESCO World Heritage support the
assumptions of heritage atheism only to a limited degree. I argue that they are instead best
appreciated from a position of heritage agnosticism. Heritage agnosticism doesn’t share
the certainties of heritage atheism. Whether heritage is indeed culpable of the usual sins
is a matter of empirical investigation, and the possibility of surprises must be allowed
for. But heritage agnosticism doesn’t share the unconditional commitment of heritage be-
lief either, aware as it is of the social construction of all heritage categories and standards.
The distinction I make is similar to the one proposed by a number of authors in the
study of religion. Here, the dominant approach has been that of ‘methodological athe-
ism’, where the truth of the ontological claims made by religions, such as those of the
existence of supernatural phenomena, are defined as outside the scope of study:
‘[R]eligious projections can be dealt with only … as products of human activity and
human consciousness, and rigorous brackets have to be placed around the question
as to whether these projections may not also … refer to something else than the human
world in which they empirically originate’ (Berger 1967: 100). As Porpora (2006)
argues, this removes the constructedness of religious phenomena from empirical
contestation and ultimately denigrates what people say they are experiencing, and thus
also the basis of religiosity, a position he suspects of having contributed to sociology’s
general neglect of religious origins. Supernatural realities may not exist, he readily
concedes, but ‘such assessment should be an empirical conclusion rather than an a priori
disciplinary assumption’ (2006: 59). Methodological agnosticism assumes a more humble
posture: ‘To be agnostic does not mean one is a disbeliever … but, instead, it means that
one is in the position of not having sufficient information from which to make a decision
on matters of truth. Admitting not to have the knowledge, then, necessitates a different
sort of scholarship from that of those who claim to possess the privileged knowledge of
either the empathetic or the explanatory observer’ (McCutcheon 1999: 7, original empha-
sis). Ethnographers of religion (Bell and Taylor 2013; Blanes 2006) have found professing
such a position as liberating for their interaction with strongly religious informants,
coming to terms with their own religious or secular convictions, and for steering clear of
the two extremes of either ‘casting the believer as close to a cultural dupe and the researcher
as the ultimate arbiter of the significance of experience’ (Bell and Taylor 2013: 8) or going
native by a full-scale conversion.

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By analogy, an ‘agnostic’ study of heritage does not posit a priori that heritage is an
empty signifier, an entirely arbitrary and socially determined ascription, but takes
people’s heritage experience and beliefs seriously. It also accepts the idea that some
of the qualities employed for the ascription of heritage value may be based on verifiable
facts, such as age, provenance or rarity, or may rest on universal human tendencies
(such as possible commonalities in the perception of beauty). And while it rejects the
idea that heritage value is intrinsic to the objects and practices so labelled, it still
considers the possibility that the latter’s materiality constrains their social interpretations
and uses (Jones and Yarrow 2013: 17). Such aspects are not bracketed out, and research on
them in other disciplines than anthropology is not just interesting as a social phenomenon
but for its substantive results. It is unlikely that heritage-isation will succeed with just any
building material.
Heritage agnosticism may also help researchers to come to terms with their own closet
beliefs. Even those who adopt critical positions often are fond of at least some of the things
and practices considered heritage on a personal level. For my own interest in the topic too, a
past as a tour guide in Cologne, introducing the many Medieval and Roman monuments of
the city to visitors, has been significant. The increasingly popular category of the ‘critical’
heritage scholar includes many whom closer scrutiny will reveal as not quite so detached.
But while it is obvious that in academic meetings, such as the aforementioned Gothenburg
conference, individual commitments to heritage differ widely, this remains the ghost in the
attic that is not openly addressed or not even consciously apprehended, comparable to the
way in which Brown (2010) has found anthropologists to be quick to dissect bureaucratic
regulation out there but significantly slower in acknowledging how their own profes-
sional practices and values are informed by similar premises. I think it will do everyone
good to admit to their personal commitments here, just as the work of scholars of religion
will profit from their being clear and forthright about their own creeds.
Heritage agnosticism thus conceived is best exemplified by the ethnographic work of
anthropologists and also some archaeologists who have not only studied texts and institu-
tional frameworks but, through long-term ethnographic fieldwork, delved into ordinary
people’s engagement with the things and practices labelled heritage, disclosing the often be-
wildering multiplicity of voices and practices surrounding it – some celebratory, others crit-
ical – and their consequences, but without preconceived expectations of what heritage must
be doing (e.g. Berliner 2012; Breglia 2006; Franquesa 2013; Herzfeld 1991; Joy 2011;
Probst 2011; Salamandra 2004; I hasten to add that this is my categorisation, not theirs).
In addition to encouraging attention to the full scope of heritage expressions and attach-
ments, I think that heritage agnosticism is particularly suited to enlighten four aspects of
cultural heritage and its appreciation: the popular demand for historical veracity and au-
thenticity; lay historicities; the church of heritage; and individual attachments to heritage.

The popular demand for historical veracity and authenticity

Heritage is a socially ascribed and therefore constructed category no doubt, but placing
things and practices in it is usually based on factual claims about their provenance, age,
continuity and authenticity. There is a widespread tendency to dismiss authenticity as a
typical concern of modern societies and their elites, something that scholars worry
about while the hoi polloi are happy with fakes and Disneyland. But authenticity, originals
and the genuine are valued in many societies past and present, and a concern to

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H E R I TA G E A G N O S T I C I S M 181

denounce Disneyland is widespread too. Post-Renaissance European high-art ideology

may have boosted this thinking, but it is certainly not absent, say, in East Asian art
(e.g. Guichard-Anguis 2000), where, for example, the knowledge of the names of artists and
sculptors reaches back much further than in Europe. Heritage atheists have done their best
to dismantle specific authenticity claims and the general fascination with it, and to do so may
provide much satisfaction when it is directed against nationalist self-assertion or other hege-
monic forces. The weak and downtrodden may be invested in particular authenticity claims
too, however (cf. e.g. Hanson 1989, 1991; Linnekin 1991), and institutions such as law courts
do also insist on historical continuity in assessing certain cases (cf. e.g. Clifford 1988: 277–346).
This is to say that a purely deconstructive approach that dissolves all claims about the
past into mere positioned discourse comes at a cost. It does not square easily with the
operational requirements of many modern institutions, and it also does not go down too
well with the popular demand for authenticity. For example, the term has been deliberately
ousted from the text of the 2003 UNESCO convention for intangible cultural heritage,
given that the rituals, performances and crafts targeted by that convention change incremen-
tally all the time. But it still sneaks in through the backdoor when hardly an application for
inscription on one of the convention’s two lists fails to assert how the proposed ‘cultural
expression’ is the original one, the oldest one of its kind, the only unchanged one, the only
surviving one, the only continuously practised one, the only one still at the original location
etc.; all of this being claims that, in essence, seek to establish authenticity (cf. also Bortolotto
2011a). Much as specialised heritage institutions and ‘AHD’ are involved in such applica-
tions, this bespeaks a wider fascination for such values among the general public, and it
was the heritage experts involved in drafting the convention text who demanded to ban
authenticity from it, only to see it come back now by popular demand. Many more
examples could be furnished that likewise underline how ordinary people are fascinated
by what they see as genuine and authentic. In a reversion of directions, the heritage tag itself
may establish authenticity in the first place: in their recent book Ethnicity, Inc., John and
Jean Comaroff (2009) give a host of examples where the public display of traditional culture
and its success in attracting tourists and customers is not seen as diminishing its authenticity
by the carriers at all. On the contrary; external recognition and demand strengthen the sense
of having a distinctive, valuable and authentic culture.
Heritage agnosticism, that is a position that does not dismiss heritage belief and the
attendant research questions right away, is a good vantage point to take such popular
demands seriously and to contribute to assessing factual claims about historical roots and
continuities, not all of which are fabricated to the same degree. Culture changes all the time
of course, but when 16th-century painted screens depicting the Yamaboko junkô show
festival floats that look almost identical to the present ones, this is a documented case of
cultural continuity that has few equals and calls for explanation. Heritage agnosticism will
of course see such claims in their context and be attentive to their social deployment, but
it will not dismiss the claim as such and the fact that it has significance for many people.

Lay historicities

Lay conceptions of the past and one’s personal connection to it may differ from that of
historians and heritage conservations, and to explore these conceptions and their inter-
relation in greater depth is an open research front. To return again to my Kyoto field
research (Brumann 2009: 238–41), I found my informants to be generally less

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fascinated with the age of specific heritage items than with the fact that these things had
been handed down informally through time, reaching themselves at the end of a long
chain of personal transfers. Yamaboko junkô participants and the owners of traditional
town houses alike spoke of a relay race through history where they themselves hold the
baton for only a while to then pass it on to the next person in line. We see a diachronic
variant of imagined community here, in which individual carriers seek transcendence
and that inspires their awe. One young man, for example, marvelled how he had once seen
a lacquered box his neighbourhood uses in the parade in an exhibition about the festival,
realising that an object that he had held in his own hands was accessible to others only
from outside a glass case. Interestingly, newcomers to the festival were no less impressed
with their own role in such chains of transmission than those with neighbourhood
pedigrees of many generations’ standing. This appears more akin to the appreciation kula
valuables with impressive exchange biographies elicited from Trobriand islanders
(Malinowski 1922: 94) than to what is commonly discussed in the heritage literature.
Also, the story side of history loomed large in Kyoto. When I asked about the age of a
celebrated festival accessory in one neighbourhood I observed extensively in 1999,
neighbourhood participants didn’t know the details. They conceded that they probably
should know, thus paying lip service to the superiority of scholarly history. Yet they were
much more interested in the connection of the semi-legendary incident depicted on their
float with their neighbourhood, coming up with all kinds of (apocryphal) speculations
that they enjoyed discussing over beers. Clearly, there is a third historicity here, a kind
of barefoot history adding itself to scholarly history and the simplified and beautified
versions of official heritage presentation. As it refers to the remote past, it is not to be
confounded with the ‘social time’ of lived experience that Herzfeld (1991: 6–10) juxta-
poses to the ‘monumental time’ of official history and heritage administration either.
The mutual relation between these different historicities and what exactly in the temporal
trajectory of a specific heritage item keeps people enthralled deserve further study.

The heritage church

In comparison to what we know about the carriers and consumers of heritage, we are
much less informed about heritage institutions and their personnel. There is of course
no dearth of exegesis of their canonical texts, categorisations and lists, but detailed
analyses of how the clergy of the heritage church go about their daily business, such
as Heinich’s study of the French Inventaire and its practitioners and hidden premises
(2009), are much more difficult to come by. This is clearly a lacuna. The influence of,
say, the Japanese Agency of Cultural Affairs (Bunkachô) or the Mexican Instituto
Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) can readily be gleaned from the case
studies of sites under their governance (Breglia 2006; Brumann and Cox 2010;
Ehrentraut 1993, 1995; Siegenthaler 2003; Thornbury 1997), so their internal workings
should be of interest too. In their study of conservation curators, architects and crafts-
people in a cathedral workshop, Jones and Yarrow show that it is through the interac-
tion and mutual challenging of different professional viewpoints (curators, architects,
stone masons) that shared but abstract principles (such as that of minimum interven-
tion) are translated into concrete conservation measures (2013), and such an uneven dis-
tribution of understandings will most likely also be found elsewhere. Such research might
also help to counteract the gulf opening up between heritage theory and practice that both

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Jones and Yarrow (2013: 6) and Deacon (2011) sense, in order to avoid that ‘critical analysis
and heritage practice will eventually circulate in separate universes’ (Deacon 2011: np).
I myself have approached one of the Vaticans of the global church of heritage, the
UNESCO World Heritage institutions, through multi-sited ethnography (Marcus
1995), attending World Heritage Committee sessions and General Assemblies and
interviewing key participants (Brumann 2012a). I reap the same rewards as in single-sited,
more continuous fieldwork, such as increasing familiarity and trust over time, and find the
ethnographic approach justified since here too only part of what is going on finds its way
into the documents, much as mountains of these are produced. There is a lot of social
scientific comment on UNESCO and its cultural policies, but much of it is informed
by only a weak sense of its institutional set-up and inner workings (e.g. Di Giovine
2009) or restricted to the interpretation of official texts (Eriksen 2001; Smith 2006:
95–114; Stoczkowski 2009) whose improvised and compromised mode of production is
not very strongly taken into account. When a UNESCO report embraces contradictory
concepts of culture (Eriksen 2001: 130–2), for example, this may indeed reflect conceptual
confusion, but could also result from accommodating each and every whim present on the
drafting committee, in a consensus-oriented environment with much more diverse profes-
sional backgrounds being present than, say, at the WTO. Indispensable as a textual
perspective is, it can lead to misunderstandings, such as the idea that there is indeed a
clearly delimited collective actor with a consistent strategy and voice, giving sentences
such as ‘UNESCO says A’ or ‘The World Heritage Committee does B’ unproblematic
sense. Much as UNESCO is striving to live up to the ideal of a focused organisation, it
is far from attaining it and will likely be forever, and the World Heritage institutions’
striving for consistency is likewise constrained by organisational complexity, the supreme
authority of self-serving nation states, path dependencies of very early decisions (such as
the absence of numerical inscription quotas or the possibility for Committee member
states to vote on their own national sites), and the persistent lack of funds.
I do not think that one could gain a realistic picture of how the World Heritage
system works without such field research, and I doubt that reading UNESCO texts and de-
cisions without such a realistic picture can do them full justice. In find confirmation for this
in other fieldwork-based and archival studies of the UNESCO heritage institutions
(Bortolotto 2007, 2010; Gfeller 2013; Hafstein 2007, 2009; Kuutma 2007; Meskell 2012,
2013; Rudolff 2010; Schmitt 2009, 2011) and other UNESCO branches (Nielsen 2011).
Heritage agnosticism is once again a good vantage point for such a research programme.
Without at least some understanding of, and respect for, heritage belief, it will be difficult
to establish rapport to key players of the church and to understand what occupies them.
Some possibilities of inquiry are available only to heritage believers or people accepted by
them, such as serving as state representatives in the statutory sessions of the intangible
cultural heritage convention, an opportunity of which both Kristin Kuutma and Valdimar
Hafstein took advantage. But of course, the UNESCO brand of heritage belief remains a
social product that needs to be read and put into context with all the critical fervour of
heritage atheism, making the middle path of agnosticism a sensible choice.

Individual attachments to heritage

Heritage agnosticism is also a good vantage point to analyse individual heritage beliefs
(or atheisms) which parallel, or stay entirely outside of, the official sanctioned church

© 2014 European Association of Social Anthropologists.


teachings. Many people are personally fond of heritage or particular heritage items.
Whether this is just affection for (or dislike of) the things in question or also an appre-
ciation of their age and historicity, and how much the latter is inflected by, or else
resistant to, official heritage discourse are the first empirical questions to address. Such
private beliefs and atheisms are likely to be socially mediated, but strict determination
is not to be expected. And they too are part of the heritage phenomenon and therefore
as deserving of study as the official stories.
I caught glimpses of such attachments in my aforementioned study of the
kyô-machiya and the way residents described the virtues of these old houses, with often
great sensitivity for such things as the play of light and shadow within the rooms or the
subtle changes wrought by the succession of seasons. Often also, people would
describe these houses as being alive in some sense, for example by comparing the unstop-
pable draught to breathing, seeing cooking odours as feeding the house, or reminiscing
how previous generations’ feelings have seeped into the physical structure. Such expres-
sions do not feature in the official heritage presentations of the houses, but are nonetheless
what individuals committed to them feel and talk about, and clearly not just in a coordi-
nated fashion but based on independent reflections about their personal experience.
Others too have pointed to the possibilities here, such as Grant McCracken
(1988: 44–56) with his affectionate sketch of an elderly lady’s affection for the patina-
imbued interior, furniture and accessories in her house. Edward Bruner (1993) followed
visitors through New Salem, an open-air museum in Illinois that reconstructs a village
where Abraham Lincoln once lived. Alongside the official messages of display texts
and interpreters, these guests also value other, rather diverse, and sometimes surprising
aspects, such as the tranquillity of the site or the ironic joking with staff members clad in
historical costumes. In large and famous heritage sites with a global visitor stream, the
diversity of experiences is likely to increase even further, and we cannot present a full
picture without taking account of it. Such a full picture would also encompass the
private beliefs and atheisms of the clergy, such as heritage professionals’ more
personal views of their occupations and of the discourses and institutions within whose
confines they operate.


The works cited approvingly above have, of course, not been written with a shared
theoretical agenda. But I think that heritage agnosticism captures what unites them
all: a recognition of heritage beliefs, private and public, that makes it difficult to decon-
struct them completely and bypass the research questions informed by such beliefs, but
also a commitment to the critical perspective of heritage atheism that seeks to uncover
the agendas and interests behind any heritage institution, item or category. In particu-
lar, the four common atheist assumptions of heritage supporting falsification, petrifica-
tion, desubstantiation and enclosure require detailed examination, as I have shown for
the cases of Kyoto’s urban traditions and of the UNESCO World Heritage apparatus
where they apply only to a limited extent. I have identified the popular demand for
historical veracity and authenticity, laypeople’s sense and versions of history and the
past, professional heritage institutions and individual heritage attachments as four
particular promising fields of enquiry, but the potential of heritage agnosticism is of
course not limited to them.

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H E R I TA G E A G N O S T I C I S M 185

As for almost all research topics, what anthropologists call the emic perspective
(or the diversity of perspectives) of the studied group’s members is essential, and
specific heritage beliefs or popular heritage atheisms will only reveal their full signif-
icance when seen in the context of other such beliefs present in the same social
sphere with which they may interact or even openly compete. Invariably, this will
require looking at the official texts and pronouncements but also beyond, probing
for the gaps between them and individual actors’ views. If nothing else, practising
heritage agnosticism will allow researchers to be more true to themselves: atheists
will feel less urged to mute their own fondness of heritage or their own dependency
on believer institutions and funds, and believers will feel less urged to silence their
own doubts whether what they tell the public about the greatness of heritage is re-
ally so certain.


I wish to thank the editors and the four anonymous reviewers for their valuable
comments on an earlier draft.

Christoph Brumann
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle

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