In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Race and Cultural Heritage

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of Cultural Heritage
  • Race, Culture, and Heritage
  • Museums and Race
  • Rethinking Heritage and Race in the Genomic Era
  • Global Perspectives on Tourism and Race
  • Case Study: Monuments, Tourism, and Race in the US South
  • Case Study: Uyghur Cultural Genocide in China

Anthropology Race and Cultural Heritage
Jenny Chio
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0276


Anthropological studies of race and studies of cultural heritage, while related, are rarely in direct conversation. Indeed, the parallels between the development of cultural heritage discourse and theory alongside the debates over the concept of race evidence the pervasiveness of both terms throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. Cultural heritage, along with ethnicity, in many ways has come to replace race as a means of describing and explaining cultural, social, and historical differences. The origin of the term “cultural heritage” is rooted in material objects and the built environment and the idea of inheritance, or the passing down through generations of physical objects and goods collectively considered valuable and valued. Heritage, nowadays, includes both tangible things (i.e., baskets) and intangible practices (i.e., the knowledge of basket-making). Critical heritage studies focuses on the social and political processes by which political and social elites, whether government officials, scholars, or cultural leaders, deem certain objects and practices worthy of being categorized as heritage. This process can be deliberate and intentional, such as through official government-led heritage-designation programs, or it can unfold more indirectly over time and by means of reputation. International institutions such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) have developed protocols and guidelines for the recognition and maintenance of heritage sites globally, with the UNESCO “World Heritage” list as the most well-known and, arguably, the most controversial. These efforts to lay claim to a shared “world” value for specific heritage sites are intended, in large part, both to transcend the divisiveness of race and racialized identities, and also to assert a shared “humanity” across political borders while celebrating social, historical, and cultural differences. The idea of certain cultural objects, places, and/or practices as worthy of “world heritage” designation, however, inadvertently and inevitably reinforces ideas of cultural hierarchy and worth on a broader scale. Race and cultural heritage collide, therefore, in moments when the codification of culture into heritage, made manifest in individual, singular physical, tangible objects and places, becomes regarded as representative of an entire social community, historical experience, and/or cultural group. Advances in genetic research and mainstream commercial ancestry tests also raise new questions about the relationship between race and heritage. Recent developments in “heritage tourism,” efforts to decolonize museums, protests spurred by or directed at monuments, and efforts to eliminate or assimilate entire cultural groups through the destruction of heritage sites reveal how ideas of race and racialized difference continue to inform the workings of cultural heritage in the early 21st century.

General Overviews of Cultural Heritage

The vast scholarship on cultural heritage is, by necessity, interdisciplinary and spans the fields of anthropology, archaeology, history, art history, international relations, peace and conflict studies, geography, and cultural studies, among others (see Brumann 2014, Harvey 2001, and Meskell 2015). Heritage is often experienced as the physical displacement (or emplacement) of temporal distance (and modern alienation), or as Lowenthal 1985 deftly dubbed, “the past is a foreign country.” Among anthropologists and archaeologists, as shown in Geismar 2015, Harrison 2012, and Meskell 2018, there has been a shared focus on understanding the ways in which heritage has been leveraged by national governments, community leaders, and other social actors in contests over political power and self-determination, and how heritage is often a means of drawing upon the past in order to assert a particular vision of the future (Harrison 2015). Critical heritage studies, which often straddles academic and policy or practice-based professions, examines the ways in which heritage expertise, as claimed by global institutions, governments, and international consultants, is invested in creating heritage, resulting in what Smith 2006 calls “authorized heritage discourse.” In turn, many heritage scholars also analyze and develop strategies for heritage work to be more responsive and responsible to the communities involved in preservation and other similar projects (see Waterton and Smith 2010).

  • Brumann, C. 2014. Heritage agnosticism: A third path for the study of cultural heritage. Social Anthropology 22.2: 173–188.

    DOI: 10.1111/1469-8676.12068

    Responding to the rapid expansion of heritage studies scholarship and in an effort to carve out an analytical perspective on heritage that takes seriously the lived realities of heritage experiences and beliefs, Brumann proposes a middle-ground position he calls “heritage agnosticism” that neither uncritically celebrates heritage as inherently valuable nor unproductively assumes heritage to be an “empty signifier” and inherently deceptive.

  • Geismar, H. 2015. Anthropology and heritage regimes. Annual Review of Anthropology 44.1: 71–85.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-102214-014217

    A comprehensive review of recent literature on national heritage regimes; in this essay Geismar outlines how heritage is tied to the very framing of the modern nation-state and is intimately linked to conflicts over resources, property, and the ownership and objectification of culture.

  • Harrison, R. 2012. Heritage: Critical approaches. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203108857

    This book offers an overview of how heritage has grown as a global phenomenon and a global industry, while positing a series of concepts and perspectives with which to analyze and understand heritage, particularly as heritage has been deployed by national and international governing bodies in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

  • Harrison, R. 2015. Beyond “natural” and “cultural” heritage: Toward an ontological politics of heritage in the age of Anthropocene. Heritage & Society 8.1: 24–42.

    DOI: 10.1179/2159032X15Z.00000000036

    Arguing that heritage practices and heritage studies should be oriented toward the future, not the past, Harrison proposes an approach that recognizes the ontological plurality of heritage in order to analyze and illuminate the differently imagined and valued futures that are being created through different forms of engagement with the past.

  • Harvey, D. C. 2001. Heritage pasts and heritage presents: Temporality, meaning and the scope of heritage studies. International Journal of Heritage Studies 7.4: 319–338.

    DOI: 10.1080/13581650120105534

    This seminal essay argues for the necessity of analyzing the concept of heritage historically in order to understand how the heritage concept has been associated with particular formations of power, authority, and identity throughout societies.

  • Lowenthal, D. 1985. The past is a foreign country. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A key work in heritage studies, Lowenthal draws upon extensive, wide-ranging examples to demonstrate how “the past” is revived, crafted, displayed, and legitimated through heritage practices in the present. Importantly, Lowenthal also discusses the role of nostalgia in the selective construction of the past for present-day purposes.

  • Meskell, L. 2018. A future in ruins: UNESCO, world heritage, and the dream of peace. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Both a history and a critical analysis of UNESCO and the creation of the “world heritage” designation program, Meskell’s extensive study illuminates the influence of statecraft and the desire for international recognition that have shaped the way heritage is now commonly defined, identified, and valued in the early 21st century.

  • Meskell, L., ed. 2015. Global heritage: A reader. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

    Chapters in this reader, mostly written by cultural anthropologists and archaeologists, address heritage from a social and an ethical perspective, prioritizing community and “ground-up” ethnographic analyses of the effects of heritage planning, programs, and projects.

  • Smith, L. 2006. Uses of heritage. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203602263

    Smith, a former cultural heritage consultant, unpacks the idea of heritage as memory, performance, place, identity, and dissonance, and argues that the dominant Western discourse about heritage, or what she calls “authorized heritage discourse” that is uncritically adopted and used by heritage professionals, has obscured the range of assumptions and contests over the meaning of heritage itself.

  • Waterton, E., and L. Smith. 2010. The recognition and misrecognition of community heritage. In Special issue: Heritage and community engagement: Collaboration or contestation? Edited by S. Watson and E. Waterton. International Journal of Heritage Studies 16.1–2: 4–15.

    DOI: 10.1080/13527250903441671

    This article examines how the term “community” has been deployed in heritage projects in ways that have reinforced processes of oppression and objectification wherein “communities” become the target or object of management and preservation.

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