Material and non-material: A case for entwining

How do intangible traditions fit into heritage conservation? Do we need material heritage to justify preservation, or can songs, recipes, even acts, merit conservation? Do they play a critical role in our desire to understand and connect with our history?

As preservationists, we can’t only deal with material heritage. It is important, and is our main concern, but going to a place simply to look at objects or a building, without feeling how the place or the objects were used, is nothing close to experiencing those places as they once were. And yet, the traditions without the place are inferior too. Seeing a non-Shakespeare play at the Globe, or a Shakespeare play in a modern theater, is not the full experience because it doesn’t take both material and non-material heritage into account.

Do we default to material heritage because it is easier to maintain than non-material? Or is it actually harder to maintain material heritage, but we seek it out with dedication because it is in fact the best way of organizing heritage in a way that can be of use to the most people?

Lowenthal doesn’t define heritage solely as physical fabric, and he dives into the question of why we feel a pull toward heritage conservation (physical or not) in Possessed by the Past: the Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. He asserts that heritage has become a kind of substitute for religion. As someone who grew up without formal religion, I can attest that my attachment to my Norwegian family heritage has in fact sometimes felt like my religion. But the religion is both about connecting to what some would argue are intangible forms of heritage and Norway itself or our old family farm.

He says “heritage fabrication is both creative art and act of faith. By means of it we tell ourselves who we are, where we came from, and to what we belong.” That fabrication, by necessity, must include both material and non-material heritage. Interpretation of one depends on the other.


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