Old Words #7: The Shoreline and the Sea

In contrast to the previous episodes in this series, this essay is a discursive reflection on the meaning of heritage, as contrasted to culture, and especially of intangible heritage. It was originally given as a speech at an International Congress on Intangible Heritage Policy, held at Willibrordhaege, Deurne, The Netherlands, on 16 February 2012. It has been lightly revised and updated to reflect the increasingly politicised space which heritage now inhabits in Europe.

It once seemed to me that making a clear distinction between innate, unchangeable heritage and acquired, changeable culture was a useful way to think about how culture—understood in its broadest sense to include both heritage and art—is used by individuals and social groups. These days, however, it all looks more complicated, more ambiguous, than that. It’s true that we all have a heritage determined by inescapable facts, including our parentage and the date and place of our birth. And it’s true that we acquire culture through our own tastes and choices, throughout life. But I imagine the relationship between these two sides of a person’s or a group’s cultural identity now as a continual, fluid interaction, like the dance of the shoreline and the sea. 

The photograph shows the sculpture of Arthur Lowe in the role of Captain Mainwaring (from the BBC series ‘Dad’s Army’, in Thetford, Norfolk © Keith Evans