The ‘Heritage Turn’ and making impact with the intangible through Cultural Studies

By Jenny Herman

For those of us doing research in the humanities, working in a time of isolation may cause us to question the impact of our roles as researchers, when we may be relegated to tasks as simple (yet necessary) as reading and writing. Given the long-term nature of most research, our immediate output, in the form of papers or publications, can feel less tangible, especially when we are no longer surrounded by others passionate about the humanities, bringing with them a sense of belonging, community, and purpose. If any others from our MA students to our senior-most researchers have encountered any of these challenges in these past weeks, I hope that this post may serve as a re-calibration for moving forward in our works with perhaps just a bit more hope or motivation.

Within the Arts, the field of Cultural Studies navigates a particularly malleable space, encompassing several disciplines, yet existing apart as well. While the field has long struggled with academic valorization due to the in-concrete nature of its methodology or subject matters treated, recent years have proven that Cultural Studies are in fact particularly well-situated to bring those elements of tangibility and applicability to research in the Arts. Regardless of the track of research (at our institution branching between “creative practices” and “cultural memory and identity”) our work hold the unique power of connectivity. Whether building bridges between academic institutions and artistic/cultural establishments such as museums, or informing policy-makers and governmental decisions, Cultural Studies hold incredible potential for impact-driven research, blending the academic aspects to the ever-changing world we interpret. In recent years, the field of Cultural Studies has been particularly integral in addressing the shift towards cultural heritage, and questions of immateriality, identity, and other intangible aspects of culture. Ironically, the surge towards heritage, and what can be viewed in academic terms as the “Heritage Turn” which is largely concerned with “nostalgia, authenticity, tradition”[1] and memory, allows us as researchers to have an even greater tangible impact in shaping the future of the field and its possibilities.

In our contemporary global context (the antithesis, perhaps, being our current state of lockdown) where both social and economic lines of distinction become harder to identify, the teeming urge for preservation and the race for delineating identities can be viewed as cultural result of our globalized climate. While cultural institutions and policymakers have certainly embraced this heritage movement, and our research has equally celebrated and explored cultural memory, identity, and the importance of exploring cultural heritage, it is also our privilege to examine these phenomena with a critical eye and seek to understand the impact of these pushes towards heritigization. This autumn (remember live classes?) colleague Clarissa Colangelo and I presented the Capita Selecta lecture on Cultural Heritage, wherein we explored this push towards heritage focus from a critical perspective through the likes of Rodney Harrison[2] and Caitlin DeSilvey[3], whose questioning of the drive does not close doors to impact-driven research, but rather opens them in interesting ways, prompting questions for curators, for global organizations like UNESCO, and for researchers alike to further examine this ‘turn’ which is in itself a cultural phenomenon.

In my own research, I was inspired after finishing a previous thesis project a few years ago about the cultural impact of climate change on France’s wine regions by exploring concepts of terroir, food and wine production policies, and their connections with heritage as a response to global circumstances. I expanded this theme of constructing heritage and identifying shifting identities, to my current research, which allows me to critically consider the ‘heritage turn’ in terms of policy, cultural memory, and its connection with the arts and literature which construct culinary identities as well. Integral to my research are the less-visible aspects of (non)belonging and the soft power of heritage as a culturally-exclusive tool. Eventually, this research will also include making the intangible accessible through collaborations in digital heritage with my promoter Fred Truyen and his work with Europeana Photography and Photoconsortium. Many of those more tangible impacts, however, remain still-distant goals, which can seem even more remote in quarantine, where it can be easy to forget that reading and writing are indeed necessary steps for work we may envisage as wider-reaching someday. So for our MA students, trying to motivate for thesis writing in these unique, though not ideal circumstances, my fellow doctoral researchers (who may be feeling more isolated than we would like to admit), and to the professors and researchers continuing to provide education at a distance, may we all remember that this is also a time for impact, even if at the moment, it all seems a bit intangible.

[1]Geyzen, Anneke. (2014). Food Studies and the Heritage Turn : a Conceptual Repertoire. Food and History. 12. 67-96. 10.1484/J.FOOD.5.108963.

[2]Harrison, Rodney. Heritage: Critical Approaches. New York. Routledge. 2013.

[3]DeSilvey, Caitlin. Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.