Posted on September 4, 2012
This conference, the first multidisciplinary jamboree of its kind in the field, was held in Sweden, at a university that has decided to focus deliberately on developing a critical heritage studies focus. The conference culminated in the establishment of an Association of Critical Heritage Studies.

The highlight of the keynotes for me was the paper by Valdimar Hafstein, an anthropology professor in Iceland who gave a fabulous paper on the birth of the Intangible Heritage Convention, part of which is online here. He told the fascinating story behind a letter written by the Bolivian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Religion to UNESCO in 1973, a letter setting out the need to protect the rights to 'cultural expressions of collective 'origin', and regulate its 'preservation, promotion and diffusion'. This letter is generally used to date the start of international efforts to safeguard intangible heritage. The story involved Simon & Garfunkel's 'El Condor Pasa', an indigenous Andean folksong of the same name, a musician who created a successful hit from the song in the early 20th century, and the relationship between local communities, the Bolivian government and its neighbours.

Some of the questions posed by papers at the necessarily limited number of conference sessions I attended were:

  • How can we achieve greater interdisciplinarity in the field?

  • Do we have a crisis of overproduction in memory work?

  • Do our critical efforts have real, positive effects?

  • Can we bridge the divide between criticism and management of heritage?

  • Is heritage the same as memory?

  • Can heritage be divided into dark (negative) and light (positive)?

  • What is the relationship between dark heritage and dark tourism?

  • Does heritage sustain old conflicts or can it have positive outcomes?

  • How is food mobilised as heritage, local cuisines recast as national ones?

It was a large gathering, with about 450 papers, that brought together people from multiple disciplines working in heritage studies (e.g. archaeology, anthropology, history, architecture) as well as a scattering of practitioners (heritage management people, museum people etc.). For me this variety of people was one of the best parts of the conference although the multiple streaming sessions sometimes limited their interactions with each other. One thing I would have liked to have seen more of was literature reviews of the field that critically examined, say, who was doing what research (Christina Maags gave an excellent paper on China), and what theoretical frames were being used. The theoretical discussions at the conference, in the end, didn't really provide much new insight, to my mind. That process will no doubt take a long time.

In 2014, the meeting will be held in Australia.

Harriet Deacon is the UK correspondent for the Archival Platform.