If there is one word guaranteed to have a historian foaming at the mouth with rage, that word is ‘heritage’. For many, perhaps most historians, the heritage industry, with its tea towels and trinkets, belongs in the next niche along from the films of Mel Gibson in the historical hall of shame.
So perhaps it is not surprising that even the architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff, currently presenting the BBC’s new series Saving Britain’s Past, sounded a note of apology when explaining the project to the readers of The Times. “Heritage used to be easy,” he wrote. “It was stately homes. It was cathedrals. It was tea towels in the gift shop and buttered crumpets in a National Trust cafe. It was nostalgia.” But now, he explained, it has been “completely revolutionised… from chocolate box to concrete box”.
If you ask a professional historian what he or she thinks of heritage, the answer often runs like this. Heritage is a shallow, Disneyfied version of history, dumbed down to appeal to the masses. It is more about entertainment than education; it turns the past into a theme park, and worse, a gift shop. Indeed, for many historians, the idea of visiting a National Trust country house, or going on a guided battlefield walk, or being shown around an industrial village by actors in Victorian dress, comes pretty close to water torture – not least because, as they see it, it debases the one thing they care most about.
As it happens, I have never entirely understood the scholar’s loathing of the heritage industry; or rather, I do understand it, but I certainly don’t share it. For one thing, it is based on a complete fallacy: the idea that there is a vast gulf between the heritage business on the one hand, and historical scholarship – pure, worthy, hermetically sealed off from the corrupting vices of populism and consumerism – on the other.
And yet, reading and writing about the past have been associated with tourism and consumerism from the very beginning. Edward Gibbon famously got the inspiration to write his great Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire “while musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol” during his Grand Tour, a hugely popular diversion for wealthy Georgian and Victorian aristocrats, turning much of Europe into an unofficial historical theme park. And while modern scholars may shudder at the thought, ‘consuming’ the past, rather than bloodlessly pondering it in the sanctity of the library, has been part of history since long before most universities were founded.
If the truth be told, many historians dislike the heritage industry out of sheer snobbery. As the left-wing historian and critic Raphael Samuel wrote more than a decade ago, their attitude is based on the premise “that the masses, if left to their own devices, are moronic; that their pleasures are unthinking; their tastes cheapo and nasty”. And behind the jeremiads [mournful complaints] of historians attacking the heritage industry – David Cannadine, for example, who dismissed “this heritage junk” – Samuel diagnosed the old canard “that anything connected with commerce was by definition ‘vulgar’, that provincials were necessarily Philistine, and the populace uncultured”.
But one of the oddest myths – odd, because clearly completely untrue – is that heritage is, or at least used to be, necessarily conservative and nostalgic. Tom Dyckhoff is clearly a great man for this: heritage, he says, used to be all about country houses and cathedrals. But this is utter nonsense.
When I was growing up in Shropshire in the 1970s, my school outing days often took me to the Ironbridge Gorge, and not just to the great iron bridge itself, but to the Coalport Tar Tunnel or the recreated Victorian town at Blists Hill. Or sometimes we went to the Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings, which boasted everything from a Herefordshire tin chapel to a Warwickshire cruck barn and a Malvern toll-keeper’s house. It was fascinating and deeply educational – although it never made up for the disappointment that we weren’t going to Alton Towers.
Heritage is not history’s opposite or its adversary; it is, in fact, merely another way of engaging with the past, one that millions of ordinary people enjoy, and one that inspires countless children and teenagers to study history in greater depth. It is a safe bet that museums such as the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley have given far more pleasure and edification to more people than a thousand scholarly monographs. But then perhaps that is why so many historians dislike them.
Saving Britain’s Past is currently available to watch on BBC iPlayer