I was at the Virtual Heritage conference yesterday at Technium CAST in Bangor (http://heritage.cs.bangor.ac.uk/) and listened to, among other things, a presentation on the value of intangible cultural assets by Drew Baker of King’s College.

I was glad to see him pushing for the value of intangible cultural assets (poems, performances, songs, and so on) but was surprised by his insistence that people value tangible heritage over intangible. I see the opposite value system.

Heritage, it seems to me, is cultural with a sort of value-added tag attached. In 1989 UNESCO defined it as

The cultural heritage may be defined as the entire corpus of material signs – either artistic or symbolic – handed on by the past to each culture and, therefore, to the whole of humankind. As a constituent part of the affirmation and enrichment of cultural identities, as a legacy belonging to all humankind, the cultural heritage gives each particular place its recognizable features and is the storehouse of human experience. (Draft Medium Term Plan 1990-1995)

So it is a part of the culture, the part that some group chose or happened to pass on to the future (it’s a bit evasive to say “handed on by the past”). Then Heritage becomes a subset of all the material signs of a culture. It is, in fact, an idealized version of that culture. We preserve this through material culture (photographs, books, videos), but it is not the material cultural assets that we value: it is the immaterial. If I visit a museum, I am often more interested in what the paintings/sculptures/manuscripts/assets tell me about the immaterial culture. I love seeing the manuscript of Sir Gawain not only because it is a beautiful document, but more importantly because it is a direct link to the person and culture that created that work. The material asset works like a warp tool in a video game, providing a direct connection to the earlier years of my culture.

If we look at material culture in this way (I won’t say it’s the only way or the dominant way, but it is my way), then the material becomes very much a virtual substance. I am here using the definition of virtual provided by the OED:

“That is so in essence or effect, although not formally or actually; admitting of being called by the name so far as the effect or result is concerned”

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