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The past today: The textuality of heritage

Garton Smith, Jennifer (1997) The past today: The textuality of heritage. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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The emergence of contemporary heritage culture throughout the western world has resulted in a proliferation of museums and heritage spaces. There is also a pervasive sense of nostalgia which manifests itself in a range of "retro" consumer goods.

Many academic writers interpret heritage culture as negative, that is, as promoting non-critical attitudes to representations of the past. Emphasising the way in which heritage fosters nostalgia and the ideology of nationalism, they argue that heritage is counter-productive to a critical contemporary culture.

In Australia, the National Trusts and the government heritage bodies have compiled lists and registers of heritage spaces and objects in order to protect them for future generations. Such documents construct a heritage canon.

Despite increased publications on heritage, there has been only limited examination of it in terms of textuality. This study investigates the textuality of heritage. It proceeds by engaging with negative assessments and concentrates on two of the major criticisms of heritage: its hyperreality and use of recurrent rural motifs.

A study of the textuality of heritage reveals unresolved tensions derived from the overlapping of dominantly high culture heritage and dominantly popular culture heritage. Heritage production is structured by a series of tensions, for example, the juxtaposition of the tendency to the hyperreal with the desire for authenticity. However, several of the features more commonly associated with popular culture heritage, for example, parody, are indicative of possible future critical heritage production.

Rural motifs are examined as signs of the discourse of pastoral derived from the politics of the eighteenth century English landscape garden movement. This study argues that the pastoral is a sign of both negative and positive critical elements in heritage.

The study concludes that the appearance of both the tendency to the hyperreal and the pastoral in the same heritage space highlights the break-down of rigid categories of high and popular culture in heritage production, despite the on-going production of lists and registers by the National Trusts and government heritage bodies. Dominantly high culture heritage spaces which are focused on pedagogy and the authenticity of the heritage object are challenged by the co-presence of textual components usually associated with entertainment and leisure. The study argues that the cross-over occurring between dominantly high culture preoccupation with the heritage object, and dominantly popular culture play with the assumed active visitor, produces enabling conditions for the development of a powerful, critical culture industry.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Humanities
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Mansfield, Alan, Felski, Rita, Layman, Lenore and O'Regan, Tom
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