Jes Wienberg
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Chronic nostalgia

Chapter 3 investigates various theories all of which interpret an interest in the past as being conditioned by phenomena in the present. It describes the discourse, which first appeared in the 1970s, in which an alleged abuse of the past is exemplified by references to ancient Egypt. A discussion of the development and context of some compensatory interpretations follows: the heritage industry as a result of industrial decline in the West; musealisation as a reaction against modernisation; chronic nostalgia as a consequence of modernity; preservation and material memory as a reaction against secularisation and mortality; and monumentalisation as a reaction to change and threats in society. By way of conclusion, the author argues for the role of the past in creating and maintaining social communities. Heritage may be used creatively in order to generate meaning for the benefit of human beings.

(Ab)used histories

When focus shifts from justifications, motives, and values to practice, or from proclamations, purposes, and assessments to how history, memory, and heritage have actually been used and thereby been given meaning, the horizon darkens. Where the first, canonical culture of heritage sees resources to use, the second, critical culture of heritage sees a series of abuses. “À qui profite le crime?” (“who profits from the crime?”), as the archaeologist Alain Schnapp put it in the foreword to La conquête du passé, an overview of the history of archaeology (Schnapp 1993: 11). His critical title with military connotations, “The conquest of the past”, was, however, transformed in the English edition into a curiosity-driven adventure, The Discovery of the Past, and the question about the crime disappeared (Schnapp 1996).

In the 1970s, two archaeologists initiated a wave of criticism of the use of the past and of heritage. Senake Bandaranayake published the article “Imperialism and Archaeology” (Bandaranayake 1974) under the pseudonym of “A. Gidtri”. Bandaranayake wrote that in order to be able to conquer the present, colonialists also had to conquer the past. The Rosetta Stone and a statue of Ramses II, both in the British Museum in London, were stated as examples of plunder. Bandaranayake took the view that colonialists destroyed more than they preserved, and he praised the revolutionary collective of archaeologists in China that did not permit any outside interference. His article represented a postcolonial criticism that found inspiration in the China of the Cultural Revolution, even though that revolution entailed an extensive vandalising of remains from the country’s past.

Bandaranayake was apparently spurred to voice this criticism on encountering the blockbuster exhibition Treasures of Tutankhamun at the British Museum in 1972 (Bandaranayake 1974: 431). In 1972–1981 the exhibition was on tour to the UK, the USSR, the US, Canada, and West Germany. This exhibition helped to finance the relocation of the temples on Philae to the nearby island of Agilkia (Säve-Söderbergh 1987: 168; 1996: 142f; Hassan 2007: 87).

Tutankhamun, with his well-preserved tomb and gold mask, is one of the best-known archaeological finds of the twentieth century. His tomb was discovered in 1922, in adventurous circumstances, by Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings, Wadi el-Muluk. The expedition was financed by George Herbert, Earl of Carnarvon, the owner of Highclere Castle, the real Downton Abbey. The discovery is enveloped in popular speculation about the curse of the mummy, which is supposed to have struck the participants. I visited the tomb in the form of replicas at a travelling exhibition named Tutankhamun – his tomb and his treasures when it came to Malmö in Sweden in 2013.

The archaeologist Brian M. Fagan also used Egyptology as his starting point, directing harsh criticism against the colonial looting of the past in The Rape of the Nile (Fagan 1975). But despite his criticism, Fagan’s main interest seems to have been the telling of the fascinating story of the exploration of the pharaohs’ Egypt, from Napoleon’s expedition in 1798 to Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb – to a great extent a race between the colonial powers France and the UK.

The temples of Abu Simbel are a well-known tourist destination in Egypt along with the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo where Tutankhamun and his tomb have been on display, the pyramids at Giza, Luxor with Karnak, and the Valley of the Kings. Exotic trips along the Nile described by authors such as Amelia B. Edwards and Agatha Christie paved the way for the mass tourism of recent years. The tourist industry is important to the Egyptian economy, but it has been hit by several blows. The attack on tourists, guards, and a guide near Luxor in 1997 was thus both a strategic attack on the country’s economy and an attack on the worship of what was seen as a non-Islamic past; there is a similarity here to the destruction by the Taliban and IS of monuments from ancient times. Then the number of tourists fell markedly with the disturbances that followed the Arab Spring in 2011.

Abu Simbel, with the colossal statues of Ramses II, is not only a tourist destination; it also serves as a set of props in Pharaonism, which constitutes a homage to pre-Islamic Egypt. Pharaonism is a national ideology which emerged in the interwar years, assigning a crucial role to Egyptology and to Tutankhamun’s tomb in particular (Reid 2002; 2015). According to Pharaonism, Egypt is primarily a country with its own period of greatness and identity – and only after that period did it become an Ottoman or Arab country. After the transfer of power in 1952, however, Pharaonism was of less importance: Egypt was now presented as a leading Arab country. But a continued focus on the pharaohs, Ramses II being the most powerful, also suited the republic with its presidents, most of whom had a background in the military. The Islamic opposition notably compared the president to a pharaoh, in a derogatory sense.

Abu Simbel also touches on the debate about the removal of treasures and the demand for their return. As a reward for their efforts in the Nubian campaign and the salvage of the temples of Abu Simbel, the contributing countries were offered the possibility of retaining part of the resulting finds, as well as of receiving entire temples as “new ambassadors extraordinary”. Debod went to Madrid, Taffa to Leiden, Dendur to New York, and Ellesiya to Turin, and some frescoes from the Cathedral in Faras went to Warsaw (Säve-Söderbergh 1987: 137ff; 1996: 114f). This gift policy was subsequently criticised both for plundering the heritage of Egypt and the Sudan and for entailing a division and dispersal of collections (Hassan 2007: 80, 90ff; 2009).

The criticism expressed by Bandaranayake and Fagan in the 1970s must be seen as part of a broad reckoning with the West. It is voiced against the background of decolonialisation after the Second World War, the criticism of US warfare in Vietnam and other countries, and the young people’s revolt against their parents and authorities. A crucial point in this development was reached with the oil crises in 1973–1974 and again in 1978–1980, the first being triggered by the West’s support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War, or October War, in 1973 between Israel, Egypt, and Syria.

Bandaranayake and Fagan were early critics. The subsequent decades saw a flood of critical debate articles and academic studies about the West’s view of the “other” in time and space – a criticism formulated both outside and in the West. It includes Orientalism (1978) by the literary scholar Edward W. Said, a work that contains criticism of literary representations in which the “Orient” is presented as unchanging, alien, and incomprehensible – or the opposite of the West, the Occident, which is said to represent the changeable, familiar, and comprehensible.

Bandaranayake, Fagan, and Said in the 1970s were followed in the ensuing decades by numerous studies that examined, and often also criticised, the way in which the past – history and archaeology in particular – had been interpreted and used through the ages (e.g. Trigger 1984; 1989; Hedeager & Schousboe 1989; Gathercole & Lowenthal 1990; Hylland Eriksen 1996; Meskell 1998; Kane 2003; Diaz-Andreu 2007). David Lowenthal’s works – The Past is a Foreign Country (1985; 2015) and The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1997) – must be included as an important part of this wave of criticism.

The criticism recapitulated above led to the establishment of both (critical) use of history and critical heritage as academic fields for research and teaching, from the 1990s onwards with their own conferences, journals, series, textbooks, networks, centres, and education programmes (e.g. International Journal of Heritage Studies 1994ff; cf. Aronsson 2004; Nielsen 2010; Harrison 2013). In more general terms, a great deal of attention shifted from the past in itself to the past in the present and therefore from source criticism to perspective criticism. Even so, this criticism may itself be seen as a new way of using of the past in the present.

This criticism has often focused on how the past has been used by nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, tourism, and other “isms”: how selection, interpretation, and mediation have been shaped according to the needs of the present; how the past has been used to legitimise a political or military agenda – in the colonisation of Africa, in the reuse of the Roman Empire by Italian fascism, in the conduct of Nazi Germany in Eastern Europe, in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and in the construction of a common Europe; how heritage has deliberately been destroyed to weaken identities in war zones in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Mali, and Syria; how treasures have been moved from the periphery of the colonies to central museums in the West; and how the past is used commercially and is being worn down by mass tourism. The list could be made much longer.

Motives, justifications, and values, what is spoken and written, must needs be supplemented by studies of practice in order to understand and explain the meanings of the past. And naturally, both purposes and practice must be subjected to critical assessment. It may, for instance, be useful to be reminded of how Gustaf Kossinna, Hans Reinerth, and other German archaeologists used the past as an argument in the context of German expansion – useful now that archaeology is once more brought to bear on issues of nationalism and identity (cf. Arnold 1990; 1998).

But this kind of criticism can easily come close to being banal and harmless. This happens, for instance, when the criticism condemns obvious abuse placed long ago in the poison cupboard of history. Moreover, criticism that is directed at the “other”, who decided, researched, or wrote at another time and in a “foreign country”, is seldom directed inwards as self-criticism. Criticism along such lines is not intended to enlighten; it functions primarily as a self-confirming social narrative. A display of criticism serves to demonstrate membership of the critical collective, confirming the existence of that community. Ethical reflection is reduced to identity-creating moralising.

Use – use and abuse – use or abuse – or only abuse? Abuse is use that someone else, later, in another place or as belonging to another tradition, regards as incorrect and therefore chooses to criticise. The use is seen as untrue, ugly, or evil. The criticism thus raises questions as to whether motives, values, use, and interpretation can be separated at all; as to whether use is unavoidable or ought to be avoided; and as to where to draw the line between use and abuse, between the true and the mendacious, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the evil.

The word abuse carries connotations of distancing in terms of time or geography. The abuse of the past took place in the past – or somewhere else. Consequently, characterising a use as abuse often makes an unconscious assumption of either a developmental perspective or an ethnocentric attitude. We are wiser now, or we know better here. But do we have any right to judge the past, to drag the dead before an academic court without any possibility of defending themselves, to hold a day of judgement over the dead in the absence of God; that is, to pass judgement in the absence of Archimedean points for what is true, beautiful, and good? Convincing arguments are needed in each specific case. The true, the beautiful, and the good are goals to strive after; but they are not easy to achieve.

Criticism of the past is itself an example of use of the past; criticism is itself a narrative to examine, just as criticism of politics is political. Therefore, the question is what the intention is, or what is revealed in practice when others’ use of the past is criticised. What is the agenda of the criticism? Its purpose may be to bring out what is untrue, ugly, or evil, so as to be able to regain the true, the beautiful, and the good. That is honourable. But criticism can also be an end in itself, serve in the creation of an identity, or be formulated in order to legitimise new perspectives or a new practice. So the criticism of the past is not only about interpreting the past, but also about the present and the future.

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” was the Party’s slogan. The words from the dystopian science fiction novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (Orwell 1949: 37, 249 quotation) by the journalist and author Eric Arthur Blair, who wrote under the pseudonym George Orwell, are well known and perhaps hackneyed, but they are nonetheless accurate. The point of trying to control the past is to control the present and therefore also the future, even if all efforts to control the future must be in vain. The slogan is not that far from the thoughts expressed by the historian Marc Bloch at the same time: The point of history is to understand the present through the past, and to understand the past through the present (Bloch 1949 (French): 11ff; 1992 (English): 32ff). However, Bloch refrained from planning to understand, let alone control, the future.

An alternative to analysing motives, justifications, and values, or criticising practice – that is, an alternative to looking backwards – can be to work towards new goals. An archaeological activism and a reorientation, in which the public is a co-creator, emerges as a constructive counter-reaction to the intense criticism of the 1980s and 1990s. New goals are set so that the past can be of use.

Other and darker motives and values appear immediately when practice is examined. Lies and manipulation are hidden behind the ideal of truth; the ugly is to be found behind the ideal of beauty; an evil reality is revealed behind the ideal of goodness. The past has been filled with lies, looted, and raped. It has been used for treasure hunts, escapism, pastimes, and profit. The past has served all needs, nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, and tourism; it has served religion, ideology, and capital. True, beautiful, and good – or, conversely, false, ugly, and evil – and in both instances the triad’s categorisation remains relevant. For there is not necessarily such a great distance between motives, justifications, and values on the one hand and the criticised practice on the other. That which is now criticised as abuse might have been perceived as useful in its time or its place. And that which is seen as useful today may be regarded as abuse in the future.

The concepts of criticism and crisis are related, their Greek roots being kritikos, meaning capable of judging, and krisis, meaning a decision or judgement. So is it the case, as many have claimed, that the use of the past increases in periods of crisis?

Crisis and the heritage industry

I believe that a civilisation which tends towards conservatism is a declining civilisation because it is afraid to go forward and ascribes more importance to its memories than to its future. Strong, expanding civilisations have no memory: they reject, they forget the past. They feel strong enough to be destructive because they know they can replace what has been destroyed. (Boulez 1976: 33)

These words were spoken by the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez in a radio interview as a comment on the tendency, in evidence from the late nineteenth century onwards, to revive older musical works. Boulez’s statement was clear and unambiguous, but far from unique. A broad spectrum of intellectuals have asserted, and continue to assert, that a society that preserves is a society in crisis. The context comprises everything from theoretical considerations to empirical examinations, from global perspectives to selected examples. But often the crisis and the consequences of the crisis are simply presented as facts for which no argument need be made. For everyone seems to know that society was, or soon will be, in a state of crisis for one reason or another, and that there is a self-evident connection between the crisis and the expansion of history, memory, and – especially – heritage. In times of crisis, therapeutic consolation is sought in the past.

As the major change, modernity is supposed to be the crucial reason why society finds itself in a state of crisis. That modernity leads to a greater focus on the past is thus a widely held standpoint. Modernity creates alienation, unrest, and anxiety that need to be compensated for or balanced by narratives from the country of the past. The reaction to modernity is said to be nostalgia as people react to having modernity imposed on them by recalling a lost time, the “wild strawberries” of their youth. And relics of the past that get in the way of modernity are moved to temporal reserves, to archives, libraries, or museums, where they are allowed to survive.

Or is it the other way round, nostalgia growing when modernity finds itself in a state of crisis? Ever since the 1980s, there has been a widely held view to the effect that the increased focus on the past was caused by the decline or end of modernity. Modernity has been succeeded by postmodernity, economic growth by decline, industrialisation by deindustrialisation, and belief in progress by belief in a bygone golden age. The closed-down factory is transformed into a museum, where former employees find work as guides. Others visit reconstructed environments from the past – Iron-Age settlements, trading places from the Viking Age, medieval market towns, or Early Modern industries. And at home, people can be entertained by the adventures of archaeologists on TV. The crisis of modernity creates a yearning to escape to an apparently secure past.

In The Past is a Foreign Country, David Lowenthal was in no doubt that the heritage boom of the 1980s was caused by a crisis. And the numerous quotations in the book include a slight rewriting of Pierre Boulez’s words: “A civilization which tends to conserve is a civilization in decline” (Lowenthal 1985: 384; 2015: 413). In a later lecture, in which Lowenthal is looking back, he refers to the background of the boom in the 1970s as a decade of unfulfilled promises, economic collapse, the closure of the Suez Canal (1967–1975), oil crises, inflation, postmodern doubt, and a revolt against modernism and the idea of progress (Lowenthal 2011 YouTube; cf. Lowenthal 2015: 36).

But in his books, Lowenthal has been unclear about the relationship between the crisis and the boom. The Past is a Foreign Country thus contains statements that point in several directions: he wrote that we should preserve because modernity, with its swift changes and developments, affects identity and well-being (Lowenthal 1985: xxiv). But he also wrote that nostalgia has replaced belief in progress and modernity (Lowenthal 1985: 11f; 2015: 36f). In other words, Lowenthal is inconsistent in identifying both modernity and postmodernity as being responsible for developments.

Here and there in The Past is a Foreign Country and its successor The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, Lowenthal mentioned a wide range of reasons why nostalgia had crowded out belief in progress and development: increasing technological innovation, radical changes, disruptions, volatility, social decline and isolation, revolutions, immigration and industrialisation, genocide and iconoclasm, greater perishability on account of mass tourism, plus pollution, political, military, and biological disasters, longer life expectancy, and technophobia. The growth of heritage is thus regarded as reflecting traumatic losses and changes as well as fear of the future, but apparently also better living conditions, as expressed in longer life expectancy (Lowenthal 1985: 8ff, 121f, 394ff; 1997: 5ff; 2015: 36ff, 202f, 416ff).

The cultural historian Patrick Wright was clearer when he claimed in On Living in an Old Country that the past, tradition, and the nation would be invoked in periods of decline. The identity of the UK was said to have collapsed after the Second World War, when the Empire disintegrated and urban renewal led to anxiety and disorientation. Faced with the country’s social and economic crisis in the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher’s government was able to offer a rallying around national symbols. Consequently, the recovery of Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose and the Falklands War, both in 1982, should be seen as two sides of the same project. Wright’s view was that history should instead be geared towards the future. History can and must be created in the present and should not focus on lost fragments. A society in development ought, according to Wright’s way of thinking, to be able to let an old wreck rest in peace (Wright 1985).

In his review of Wright’s book, the architect Colin Ward pioneered the term “heritage industry” (Ward 1985, cf. Wright 2009: xxiii, 258, note 36). Intended to be pejorative, the term was undoubtedly inspired by the philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, of the Frankfurt School, who formulated the concept “culture industry” in the 1940s. Horkheimer and Adorno used it about American popular culture with its films, radio, and magazines, which they viewed as solely profit-seeking; according to them, these manifestations of popular culture were standardised, commercial, conformist, and banal, and they manipulated and passivised the masses (Horkheimer & Adorno 1947 (German): 144ff; 2002 (English): 94ff; cf. Adorno 1967 (German); 1979 (English)).

A couple of years after that review, another well-written book established “heritage industry” as a general term within the framework of what was to become the critical tradition of heritage. In The Heritage Industry, the cultural historian Robert Hewison delivered a vigorous attack on the eponymous phenomenon. Hewison criticised the tendency to establish ever more museums, historical theme parks, and visitor centres. He claimed that heritage had become a nostalgic escape in a time of decline and uncertainty. The UK had, he said, been in crisis ever since the 1960s, beset by pessimism, devaluation, and oil crises. Modernisation had been replaced by deindustrialisation and unemployment. Industrial premises had become museums. Instead of goods, they produced superficial heritage. In Hewison’s view, the heritage industry was stifling contemporary culture, and its inertia was impeding necessary renewal. What he wished to see was not more heritage and bringing to life but critical history, “real” industry, and “real” jobs (Hewison 1987).

Similarly drastic criticism was formulated by the philosopher Agnes Heller in her article “Europe – An Epilogue”. From an American perspective, Heller observed a Europe in decline ever since the First World War, characterised by barbarity and totalitarianism. Worn out, Europe had turned away from progress and modernity that were, according to Heller, the essence of European culture. Instead, Europe was looking towards a nostalgic culture. Now Europe was searching for meaning in the past, as the present had nothing to offer. Its preoccupation with the past was seen as a symptom of its decline. “Old cities are rebuilt, ancient castles are refurbished, old artefacts are exhibited, old books are republished – Europeans tiptoe in their cities as museums because they are museums” (Heller 1988: 155; italics in the original).

This view was repeated, but now from an Eastern perspective, by Chinese state media after the vote on Brexit in 2016: “East Asia has witnessed decades of high-speed growth and prosperity. Europe stays where it was, becoming the world’s center of museums and tourist destinations” (Global Times 25 June 2016).

Radical criticism was also presented by the historian Françoise Choay in L’allégorie du patrimoine (The Invention of the Historic Monument). Choay saw the culture industry, with its inflation of heritage and museums, as a reaction against the electronic era that had emerged since the late 1950s. In her view, a hegemonic technological network had liberated humanity from its natural and cultural restrictions, such as seasonal change. Artificial memory, greater mobility, and global communication had destabilised identity. The present was therefore characterised by repressed conflicts, anxiety, helplessness, and crisis. And Choay issued a warning about the new prosthetic human being, homo sapiens prostheticus, on the threshold of a new century (Choay 1992 (French): 158ff, 187ff; 2001 (English): 138ff, 164ff; italics in the original).

Similar ideas occur in Twilight Memories by the literary historian Andreas Huyssen. As a reaction to accelerating technological development and a crisis for modernity’s faith in the future, he claimed that a “museum mania” had arisen since the 1980s. It transformed the museum from an institution for the elite into a popular mass medium. The revolution in the sphere of information had made the present chaotic, fragmentary, and liquid. Digital media spearheaded by television had blurred the difference between then and now – and between fact and fiction. The authentic materiality and contemplation offered by museums could, Huyssen suggested, compensate for the speed and superficiality of the media (Huyssen 1995: 14, 20, 25ff).

The sociologist Frank Füredi has described his own time as characterised by social anxiety. In Mythical Past, Elusive Future, Füredi thus claimed that the history and nostalgia of the 1980s was an expression of the decline of the West and its fear of the future. He saw the West as being characterised by economic stagnation, pessimism, and ideological emptiness after the end of the Cold War. The West had turned towards the past, with roots and tradition, to create new identities and contexts. Füredi viewed this development as a crisis of modernity, comparing his own present to the “fin de siècle” of the 1890s. He also criticised the use of the past as creating identities that are more about who people are than who they can become. Füredi wanted to see historical thinking rather than historical narrative, change rather than continuity, reason rather than roots, forward-looking progress rather than backward-looking conservatism (Füredi 1992).

In Füredi’s opinion, decline and anxiety had meant a boom for the past; but at the same time, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had generated historical thinking, that is, an awareness that humans are able to shape their own future. And a romantic view of history had emerged in the nineteenth century as a conservative reaction against the Enlightenment’s belief in progress and against the French Revolution (Füredi 1992: 72ff, 192ff).

The crisis and the critical jargon have also made their way to Scandinavia, even though references to the international debate may be absent. In the project “Modernisation and heritage”, which resulted in the edited volume Modernisering och kulturarv, the economic historian Svante Beckman wrote that the increased importance of heritage was a manifestation of the third, or perhaps the fourth, crisis of modernisation. These crises are linked to uncertainty about the future around the turns of centuries – 1800, 1900, and now 2000. Beckman also compared the fin de siècle of the 1890s to the end of the twentieth century: the same uncertainty, the same cultural shift, the same reaction to modernisation – and the same nostalgia (Beckman 1993a; 1993b).

Crisis is a common denominator of the explanations of increased interest in history, memory, and – especially – heritage. We witness a “crisis discourse” which, like a black hole, attracts and swallows all other interpretations. But crisis is an unclear concept, and it is rarely the result of an analysis. “Crisis” is used to designate a situation or change as being unfortunate or bad. But anything at all can be seen as a crisis by someone – and as unproblematic by someone else. When the word crisis crops up in a text, there is an explicit or veiled purpose. The concept is used as a rhetorical tool in shaping a narrative (cf. Magnusson Staaf 2013).

Society is in crisis; but when, how, and why? Heller saw a crisis since the First World War, Choay since the 1950s, Hewison since the 1960s, Lowenthal and Wright in the 1970s, Huyssen and Füredi in the 1980s, Beckman perhaps in the 1990s. Some write about a crisis in Europe, others in the UK, France, or – perhaps implicitly – in the West as a whole. And the crisis can be blamed on modernity, on postmodernity, or on something else again.

Another common feature is criticism directed against the increased importance of the past, against history, memory, and – especially – heritage. One example is the critique of tradition by the modernist Boulez. But it also includes criticism of heritage specifically, whereas traditional or critical history is commended. Lowenthal and Hewison thus drew a sharp distinction between history and heritage. They wanted to see more traditional or critical history, not narratives or superficial or false heritage. Lowenthal linked history to a search for truth and authenticity, but heritage to faith, fables, and construction; history could be tested, but heritage could not, a view pithily summarised in the heading “Historical fact, heritage faith” (Lowenthal 1997: 1, 119ff with heading, 250; cf. also Füredi 1992: 268). Or, as Hewison put it: “Heritage, for all its seductive delights, is bogus history” (Hewison 1987: 10, 139, 144 quotation).

This criticism is yet another example of widespread elitist contempt for the popular, perhaps spiced with a dash of envy, and it forms a repetition of the Frankfurt School’s sceptical view of modernity with its commercial development; it may also be a consequence of the attitude of many text-centred historians to material remains, which are researched by archaeologists and ethnologists. Even though it is not formulated directly, it is clear that this criticism adheres to familiar hierarchical fault lines between the elite and the people, high and low culture, the academy and the general public, education and entertainment, fact and fiction. A reaction against elitist criticism was presented as early as the 1990s (e.g. Samuel 1994: 259ff; also Wright 2009: xiiff); but it is still relevant, since the views live on.

The concept of the heritage industry, which is inspired by Horkheimer and Adorno’s cultural industry, is intended to be derogatory; “industry” is supposed to evoke associations to something bad. Yet paradoxically, in his criticism of the heritage industry, Hewison is actually calling for more traditional industry. So when industry expanded into the cultural sphere in the 1940s, this was a bad thing; and later on, when there was deindustrialisation in the 1970s, that was bad too.

A compensatory linkage is generally claimed between the crisis and the emergence of or increase in history, memory, and heritage. Even so, the notion that there is a causal connection here has the character of a postulate. A temporal conjunction between different trends is pointed out without any further examination. Alternatively, selected examples are put forward as arguments or “evidence”. But the arbitrary nature of the choice of examples and interpretations becomes apparent when the recovery of the Mary Rose was used by Wright as an example of a nationalist application of the past and a nostalgic backward glance in a period of decline for the UK. A sidelong glance reveals that the Swedish warship Vasa from the seventeenth century was raised in 1961 (, while the five Viking ships from Skuldelev in Denmark were raised in 1962 ( – in both cases at a point in time when modernity, industrialisation, and the economy were making advances in Scandinavia.

However, the connections between crisis, society, and heritage can be turned around. The postulated cause and effect can be made to change places. It is the increased interest in heritage that makes the critics perceive a crisis in society. The actual “crisis” is not modernity, the decline of modernity, or deindustrialisation, but the emergence and existence of what is derogatorily described as a heritage industry. Then, depending on which concrete phenomenon is being discussed, critics arrive at somewhat dissimilar explanations and crises.

For the critics generally have a problem with heritage. They offer an unfavourable account of their own present, in which heritage is expanding. Things were better before the 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, 1960s, 1950s or the First World War, before the spread of the commercial, the popular, and the material. It is not so much the increased interest in the past that is the problem; the trouble lies in the popular expressions of this interest and the focus applied at any one time. What arouses distaste is the new role of the museums as a mass medium, the bringing to life of a reconstructed past, the shift in emphasis from education to entertainment and consumption, from the elevated to the everyday, from texts to images and materiality, from the authentic to replicas, and from older periods to modernity, the present, and the future. It can also be noted that whereas museums are perceived as a sign of crisis, archives and libraries hardly ever are, even though they also protect and preserve remains of the past.

Clearly, then, the crisis stems not from society, but from heritage. And the criticism is nostalgic. The expansion of heritage has caused a nostalgic reaction among a large number of intellectuals. Thus the fierce and sometimes sarcastic criticism is itself a reaction to crisis.

Progress and musealisation

Decline and postmodernity are not the sole explanation of the rising interest in the past or the emergence of a heritage industry. On the contrary, the debate about museums and archaeology also features a widespread view that progress and modernisation are the very reason for it. The past is thought to possess greater significance in periods of development and economic growth. History, memory, and heritage are resources that are expected to be able to compensate for the unfavourable consequences of progress.

The need to compensate for progress has been expressed most clearly in Germany, where a compensation theory has spread from philosophy to other disciplines. The theory was first formulated by the philosopher Joachim Ritter, who led the seminar called “Collegium Philosophicum” in Münster and after whom the Ritter School was named. The theory was developed further by Ritter’s pupils Odo Marquard and Hermann Lübbe. It sees progress, with its technical and economic developments, as either essential or desirable. But to attain balance in society, the harmful effects of progress must be limited.

Ritter discussed the same phenomena as C. P. Snow, namely science and the humanities (or literature) (cf. Snow 1959). But while Snow lectured about the gap between the analytical and explanatory natural sciences on the one hand and the interpretative and understanding of the humanities on the other, Ritter wanted to demonstrate their dependence on each other. He asserted that the humanities were established in the nineteenth century as an existential response to the natural sciences and modernisation. Abstraction, ahistoricity, and discontinuity, which were seen as characterising modern bourgeois industrial society, were compensated for by the Bildung, history, language, art, literature, and philosophy of the humanities. In more concrete terms, modernisation was said to banish the “historical” to the museums (Ritter 1961).

Extending Ritter’s line of thought, the philosopher Odo Marquard took the view that the modern world lacks meaning. The alienation and destructive elements inherent in modernity need to be compensated for by traditions, narratives, museums, and preservation. The ahistoricity of natural science is compensated for by humanities scholarship, which re-enchants the world with its narratives. Museums provide a refuge for what has been crowded out by progress. So modernity has two sides: both a culture of progress and a compensatory culture of memory, increasing at the same pace. The more modernity, the greater the need for humanities scholarship. And the more modernity, the greater the number of museums. He also argued that the modern idea of progress and the first museums had arisen at the same time, shortly after 1750, and that the natural sciences were established before the humanities. The concepts of compensation and “Homo compensator” kept recurring in Marquard’s philosophy (Marquard 1986: 98ff; 2000: 11ff, 30ff, 50ff).

Like Marquard, the philosopher and political scientist Hermann Lübbe discussed progress and its consequences in numerous articles and books. As a general thesis, he asserted that the constantly increasing speed of progress causes the present to “shrink”. The destruction and alienation inherent in progress lead to a nostalgic yearning to escape. People turn to history and museums in order to regain familiarity with their present. The main function of the museum, and of preservation, is thus to compensate for the loss of familiarity and identity resulting from the exponential dynamic of innovation in society. This is a trend that, according to Lübbe, cannot continue forever (e.g. Lübbe 1982; 1983: 9ff; 1996; also Rosa 2005 (German); 2013 (English); 2012 (German)).

In his lecture Der Fortschritt und das Museum (“Progress and the Museum”), Lübbe discussed the role of progress for musealisation. Using statistics and examples from the then West Germany, he demonstrated how musealisation had increased dramatically during the twentieth century. Lübbe explained this trend on the basis of the museum’s core task of salvaging what had been made redundant by progress. Progress has now become so rapid that all kinds of products lose their function ever more rapidly. Hence the quantity of relics fit for museums keeps growing. According to Lübbe, musealisation increases at the same accelerating tempo as modernisation so as to be able to compensate for the destruction. Something recognisable and familiar is needed for people’s identity when everything else is in a state of rapid change (Lübbe 1982; cf. also Latour 1991 (French): 93f; 1993 (English): 69).

The role of museums in the development of society was recently discussed in a European research project called EUNAMUS, or European National Museums; while there is no reference to compensation theory, the word “balance” appears frequently. The project regards national museums, in their capacity of institutions, as “agents of change” and places where society can “negotiate” about changes. Museums use, or ought to use, culture to balance continuity and change, stability and dynamism. Museums thus have a role in creating social stability, where culture can work together with politics (Aronsson 2015; The role of museums for establishing a balance is fully in line with the Ritter School.

This balance, however, may either be the project’s demonstration of an actual function or – as is more likely – an attempt to formulate a topical and legitimate meaning for national museums in Europe; that is, a formula for both the present and the future.

The relationship between change and preservation is clear in archaeology when ancient monuments are excavated and documented in order to “salvage” the past. When a new settlement or a new industry, motorway, railway, or gas pipeline is to be constructed, the legislation may require archaeological investigations. Remains from the past that would otherwise have been destroyed are then examined and documented. In principle, this context may entail a correlation between the extent of modernisation and the archaeological work involved. The past is threatened and is then salvaged by an archaeology that is known by several names, such as rescue archaeology, salvage archaeology, contract archaeology, and commercial archaeology. But salvaging here means investigating, documenting, and removing, as the development of society has the highest priority (Rosén 2007).

Even so, the relationship between modernisation and archaeology is complicated. The existence and design of legislation regulating archaeology will vary between countries, just as there are differences with regard to how the legislation is applied in practice. Despite strong legislation, a balance will always be struck between different needs in each instance. Nor can a simple correlation be expected between economic cycles and the scale of excavations. In boom periods, archaeology may be extensive, since many new homes and industries are built at such times. But in a recession, archaeology may be extensive too, since the government chooses to invest in infrastructure to create employment – or even initiate archaeological investigations for the same reason.

The idea of salvaging ancient monuments under threat either by giving them protection or by moving them to a museum is an idea as old as archaeological and antiquarian practice; in Sweden, for instance, it can be traced back to the middle of the seventeenth century (Jensen 2002: 266ff, 325ff; 2004). The main argument for the operation at Abu Simbel and along the Nile in Nubia was precisely to save the past – it was a salvage operation (Desroches-Noblecourt & Gerster 1968; The Salvage of the Abu Simbel Temples, 1971; Säve-Söderbergh 1987; 1996).

In his eulogy at the start of the Nubian campaign in 1960, the French Minister of Culture André Malraux thus described the campaign as a way of overcoming death: “Il n’est qu’un acte sur lequel ne prévalent ni l’indifférence des constellations ni le murmure éternel des fleuves: c’est l’acte par lequel l’homme arrache quelque chose à la mort” (Malraux 1960 (French/English): 11; “there is only one action over which indifferent stars and unchanging, murmurous rivers have no sway; it is the action of a man who snatches something from the death” [sic]).

Salvage is a flexible concept, though. In his youth, the author Malraux had seen it as a salvage operation when, as a leader of an expedition, he unlawfully removed reliefs from the abandoned temple of Banteay-Srei at Angkor in Cambodia in 1923 – an act for which he was subsequently convicted (Greenfield 1996: 6, 282ff). The removal of the Parthenon frieze, the “Elgin Marbles”, has also been described as a salvage operation since the sculptures might otherwise have been vandalised or destroyed by air pollution (Greenfield 1996: 63; Bring 2015: 90, 97f).

Eric Hobsbawm turned the concepts of renewal and tradition around in a creative manner by showing that changes can create traditions. As is seen from the anthology The Invention of Tradition, Hobsbawm took the view that traditions can be constructions. When rapid change in society weakens or destroys social patterns, newly formed traditions become a way of showing that part of the modern world is unchanged (Hobsbawm & Ranger 1983: 1ff; also Connerton 1989: 51f, 63f, 103). Invented ritual traditions are intended to create a feeling of continuity in the midst of discontinuity, irrespective of whether changes can be described as progress or as decline.

A compensation theory was formulated for the first time by the doctor and psychologist Alfred Adler (1908 (German); 2002 (English)): neurotic behaviour and the need to compensate, or even over-compensate, were due to inferiority complexes. Marquard, however, followed his own theory back to the theodicy problem; that is, the problem of being able to combine faith in an almighty God with the existence of evil. Just as God was said to compensate for the evil in the world, the humanities were able to compensate for modernity and natural science (Marquard 2000: 15ff). Others have, by contrast, viewed compensation theory as a political project.

With its combination of belief in both progress and tradition, the Ritter or Münster School has been characterised as a conservative political philosophy. The members of the group have been classed along with other liberal conservative or culturally conservative intellectuals from the Cold War era who accepted modern technological civilisation, but observed unfortunate consequences that needed to be compensated for (cf. Hacke 2006). Critics linked to the Frankfurt School have even described it as neoconservative (Habermas 1985 (German): 86ff; 1990 (English): 69ff).

The view that change needs to be balanced by permanence, renewal by tradition, is characteristic of a conservative policy. But when a “neo” is added in a rhetorical manner, the idea is to mark distance, and it is intended as an insult. And it can be noted that critics inspired by the Frankfurt School join the Marxist Hobsbawm in applying compensation theory in their interpretations.

David Lowenthal, Patrick Wright, and Robert Hewison are against the decline in modernity, against postmodernity, and against the way in which the decline is compensated for. Joachim Ritter, Odo Marquard, and Hermann Lübbe accept both modern development and compensation. Points they have in common are that they all perceive an increase in history, memory, and heritage, and that they see it as a compensatory reaction. However, they have completely different views of the “crisis”. And whether anything at all can be viewed as a crisis depends entirely on the perspective chosen.

However, the attaching of political labels to theories or debaters cannot determine if progress or decline, renewal or tradition, modernity or postmodernity are concepts of relevance for understanding and explaining the “heritage industry” and musealisation. Other strategies are needed: there is a need both to clarify the concepts used and to conduct a concrete examination of chronological sequences and geographical connections. How are the concepts related to one another? And can correlations be observed in time and space between changes and traditions, in this case between modernity and World Heritage? Does nostalgia thus arise in periods of radical change, irrespective of whether the changes are experienced as progress or as decline?

Chronic nostalgia

In the film Nostalghia, the poet Andrei Gorchakov wanders around in a Tuscany full of ruins and decaying buildings. He is pathologically affected by his longing for his family and home in Russia. But after a symbolic act, when he succeeds in carrying a lit candle across a mineral pool in Bagno Vignoni, redemption becomes possible, and he dies. In the last images of the film, Gorchakov is sitting in front of his Russian home, which is placed inside the ruins of the Italian Abbey of San Galgano. Gorchakov is finally at home in both worlds, at home both there and here (Tarkovsky 1983 film).

Nostalghia, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, is one of many artistic works, films, novels, poems, musical works, and images that express yearning for what has disappeared. Tarkovsky depicted a bleak existence abroad at a time when he was himself entering exile. Nostalgia is about being cut off from a time and a place, often from a childhood home. And the longing is so strong that it becomes unhealthy.

The concept of nostalgia appears for the first time in a medical dissertation: Dissertatio medica de Nostalgia, Oder Heimwehe (Medical Dissertation on Nostalgia), by the physician Johannes Hofer (1688 (Latin); 1934 (English)). Here, the concept “nostalgia” – from the Greek words nostos and algos, meaning “journey home” and “pain” – is used as a new term for homesickness, that is, for a melancholy and pathological longing for home. Hofer used a Swiss mercenary who lived abroad as an example. And through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, nostalgia was used as a medical diagnosis, especially for soldiers longing to go home (Davis 1979: 1ff; Boym 2001: 3ff; Johannisson 2001: 15ff, 51ff; Fuentenebro de Diego & Valiente Ots 2014).

Gradually, the meaning of the nostalgia concept shifted from a lost place to a lost time. It was Immanuel Kant – in a revolutionary decade and at an advanced age – who was first to link homesickness not to a place but to a lost time. According to Kant, the homesickness of the Swiss soldier was to do with the notion of a carefree and sociable childhood, a longing for the simple joys of life, which could only be disappointed on a subsequent visit when everything had changed. For, as Kant noted, youth cannot be recreated (Kant 1798 (German): 87, § 24; 2006 (English): 71f, § 32). For his own part, Kant remained faithful to his native town, Königsberg (since 1946 Kaliningrad) in East Prussia. Kant stayed at home, without needing to travel, instead having the world come to his market town, a place that he found well suited to studies (Kant 1798 (German): viii note; 2006 (English): 4, note a).

The new interpretation of the concept of nostalgia has been explained by the emergence of a new view of time in around 1800. When an older, static, cyclical or cosmological view of time was replaced by a linear and secular view of time, the past was separated from the present and the future. And the past became desirable as the time lost forever (e.g. Boym 2001: 8ff; Johannisson 2001: 22f).

However, a shift from place to time in the meaning of the nostalgia concept is debatable. First, it is a simplification to say that time changed character from being pre-modern to being modern in around 1800. Views of time are dependent on the actual situation, so there can be several different time perspectives at the same time. Second, the time and place of nostalgia are not easily separated; that is, yearning either for a time or for a place. The Swiss soldier longed to go home – or longed for the time when he would be at home again. When elderly people are nostalgic, they long for a lost childhood country such as Finnish Karelia; German East Prussia; East Germany, as in “ostalgia”; or Yugoslavia in “yugo-nostalgia”: it is to do with something that has disappeared in both time and space, both a lost epoch and a partly changed landscape. Something has become different and alien, while something else remains unchanged and familiar. In other words, nostalgia is a selective feeling.

With the nineteenth-century idea of progress and modernisation, nostalgia evolved into a general social diagnosis, an irrational feeling. Nostalgia became a sign of weakness in a person unable to adapt to the modern at a time when it was possible to travel by steamship and railway. A nostalgic became a derogatory term for a person who flees from the present and the modern, someone who dreams backwards in time (Lowenthal 1985: 4ff; 2015: 31ff; Boym 2001: 16ff; Johannisson 2001: 127ff).

In the critical tradition of heritage, nostalgia is a derogatory term for people’s interest in the past, and calling someone a nostalgic is insulting. Being preoccupied with the past becomes a symptom and a social diagnosis. As Lowenthal writes, “no term better expresses modern malaise” (Lowenthal 1985: xxiv, 4 quotation, 4ff; 1997: 1, 5ff, 88ff; 2015: 31ff). In line with this, I myself previously formulated the ambiguous term “chronic nostalgia” to characterise an unhealthy and painful yearning for remains of the past (Wienberg 1999: 184ff; also Boym 2001: 290).

In The Future of Nostalgia, the literary historian and artist Svetlana Boym expressed the view that the present is characterised by a “global epidemic of nostalgia” (Boym 2001: xiv). Boym’s diagnosis was quoted two decades later by the productive sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in his final and somewhat disillusioned book Retrotopia (2017: 4 quotation). Bauman regretted the nostalgia of his time and its inability to construct utopias for the future.

The choice of the term nostalgia is no accident. Rhetorically, nostalgia is intended to bring trauma, disease, weakness, and sentimentality to mind; the implication being that a strong and healthy person has no need of nostalgia. Paradoxically, though, the critical tradition of heritage uses modernity’s view of nostalgia as a social diagnosis at the same time as it is apt to reject modernity as an ideal.

Nostalgia improves and embellishes the past. Things were not as pleasant in the Stone Age, the Viking Age, the Middle Ages, before the First World War, or in the 1950s as people imagine. The good old times were not as good as people like to think. Probably few people would like to swap a life today for a life in an earlier epoch – or only providing they were allowed to keep their life expectancy, doctor, dentist, washing machine, and smartphone.

But nostalgia can be a force for good. Nostalgia may be a resource that is activated in order to deal with existential threats, destruction, and death. Nostalgia is important for the individual’s identity and meaning when facing discontinuities; that is, in phases of radical change (Sedikides et al. 2004).

In Yearning for Yesterday (1979), the sociologist Fred Davis described his American present as an “orgy of nostalgia” with Disneyland as a “nostalgia industry”. He regarded this nostalgia as a reaction to the social and political turbulence of the 1960s. However, despite his choice of term, Davis saw nostalgia as something both useful and essential. This was because, in his view, nostalgia provided relief in the transition between phases of life and in periods of change characterised by anxiety, worry, and uncertainty. Nostalgia contributes to the creation of a collective identity for generations that need to come to terms with political murders, war, depression, and natural disasters. In a modern society characterised by constant change and increasing speed, in which identities are threatened by discontinuity, nostalgia may contribute to a re-enchantment of the world. Nostalgia filters, selects, arranges, constructs, and reconstructs the past. It is the capacity of nostalgia to find an attractive past, its freedom from pain, that makes recovery possible (Davis 1979: 31ff, 97ff, 118ff).

Nostalgia may also be an expression of active opposition to developments. With the dominance of West Germany and a rapid deindustrialisation, “ostalgia” is a conscious re-selection of the old East Germany and its way of life and goods (Berdahl 1999).

Nostalgia is a way of choosing an elevating perspective on both past and present, the good and the beautiful ranking more highly than the true. The therapeutic – and thus healing – capacity of nostalgia derives precisely from its selective memory. As aptly put by the journalist Herb(ert) Caen, “Nostalgia is memory with the pain removed” (Davis 1979: 37). Consequently, nostalgia can mean returning home both with and without the concept’s suffix of pain, both with and without algos.

Pierre Boulez took the view that a conservative, preserving civilisation is a civilisation in decline (Boulez 1976: 32f). And Lowenthal asserted in The Past is a Foreign Country that a society will preserve when it is incapable of making creative use of the past (Lowenthal 1985: xxiv, 384, 406; 2015: 413). But with the aid of specific examples of radical changes, it is possible to show that preservation and creativity are not mutually contradictory, and that the yearning inherent in nostalgia is not sufficient to understand and explain a greater interest in the past.

The French Revolution of 1789 and the subsequent wars up until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 have been identified as being of crucial importance for the emergence of a modern historical awareness, with museums, monuments, memorials, historicising styles of architecture, and historical novels. For instance, the historian Peter Fritzsche asserted in Stranded in the Present (2004) that the nostalgia of Romanticism arose in the wake of the revolution and the wars, which created a dramatic discontinuity and mobility in both Europe and America. History offered the only possible escape from the present. Drawing on examples from literature, letters, diaries, and memoirs, Fritzsche showed how the past became associated with feelings of loss and melancholy. Ruins were transformed from manifestations of nature and impermanence to evidence of the greatness of the past in a nascent nationalism. The past was separated from the present and therefore became an object of study worth protecting and preserving.

The French Revolution itself became the archetype of radical social change. It started in 1789 with the capture and demolition of the Bastille in Paris. In that same year, a decision was made to confiscate Church property. This was followed by wave upon wave of destruction of symbols representing the old regime – quickly followed by decrees forbidding this destruction. As early as 1790, the new concept of “historic monument” (monument historique) was used about palaces, churches, and abbeys; and church art was gathered in a depot in the Petits-Augustins Convent, while other objects went to the Palais du Louvre, a royal residence that was converted into the Musée Central des Arts in 1793. Then, in 1794, the rhetorical word “vandalism” was used to prevent further devastation at the same time as a term was established for what was to be protected, un héritage commun, a common heritage. And in 1795 the depot was converted into a museum for fragments of architecture and sculpture, the Musée des Monuments Français (“Museum of French Monuments”). But when the monarchy was restored in 1815, the museum was closed and church property was returned (Choay 1992 (French): 76ff; 2001 (English): 63ff; Poulot 1995; 1997; Gamboni 1997: 31ff, 329ff; also Arrhenius 2003: 51ff, 161ff; 2012: 14ff, 138ff; Schildgen 2008: 121ff).

Another example of how radical change was followed by a new museum can be found in Copenhagen of the same period. There, the Oldnordisk Museum, the Old Nordic Museum (from 1892 the National Museum of Denmark), was founded in 1807 as a reaction to Denmark’s defeat in the Napoleonic Wars, the theft of the Golden Horns, the bombardment of Copenhagen, and the loss of the fleet, developments that culminated in state bankruptcy in 1813. The idea was that the past would strengthen the absolute monarchy and national identity in a time of crisis (Kristiansen 1981: 22; 1989 (Danish): 207; 1993 (English): 23).

But the museums founded after the upheavals in Paris and Copenhagen were not nostalgic; they showed no longing for the past. On the contrary, they transformed the past into something new and useful in the present. For instance, the nationalised buildings in Paris that had not been destroyed could be given new functions, while other symbols of the monarchy and Church could be transferred to museums and be given a national and secular importance there as both sources and art. In other words, destruction and preservation can be two sides of a process in which the past is invested with new meanings (Choay 1992 (French): 76ff; 2001 (English): 63ff; Poulot 1995; 1997; Gamboni 1997: 31ff, 329ff; also Arrhenius 2003: 51ff, 161ff; 2012: 14ff, 138ff).

Historicising architecture displays the same tendency. On the face of it, the neo-Gothic style, which became popular from the 1820s, may appear to be yet another example of a nostalgic and romantic retrospective, modelled on the Middle Ages in this case (Clark 1928). But historicising style is not a Romantic invention from the nineteenth century. Both medieval Romanesque architecture and Renaissance architecture had ancient Rome as a model, while the ideal of Neoclassicism from the middle of the eighteenth century was Ancient Greece. And while neo-Gothicism, which imitated the medieval Gothic style, was indeed widespread in the nineteenth century, it had begun back in the middle of the eighteenth century (cf. Clark 1928).

Style was chosen with attention to different functions; the Italian Renaissance style was hence deemed suitable for palatial new bank offices. And historical forms were combined with the most modern technology for specific needs, Romanticism being integrated with modernity. For instance, the architect Helgo Zettervall used iron and concrete in his restorations of medieval cathedrals in Sweden, but the new materials remained hidden from view. A roof structure of iron from the 1870s lies concealed above the vaults of Lund Cathedral, invisible to visitors (Weibull 1953: 88). As a style, neo-Gothic was thus more Gothic than medieval Gothic had ever been.

In the meeting between past and present, something new is created. Developments after the French Revolution may be taken as examples: museums and monuments transformed political propaganda into sources or art; neo-Gothic combined old forms with new technology; and historical novels used the past in order to shed light on topical issues.

Nostalgia’s way of reusing selected portions of the past may be reminiscent of “creative anachronism”, within whose framework the European Middle Ages and Renaissance are explored and brought to life and in which the focus is on experiences and narratives, not on traditional authenticity. Past and present are deliberately mixed as a method (e.g.; Petersson 2017). And nostalgia can be compared with the use made by the Middle Ages of spolia; that is, the reuse of selected older, generally ancient, building components in medieval buildings.

Spolia from different buildings were recycled in new contexts and given new meanings, generally as part of a political or religious process of legitimation. Spolia evinced both breaks and continuity with the past – breaks through their fragmentation and continuity through renewed use (Fabricius Hansen 2003). One well-known example is the palace chapel of Charlemagne at Aachen (WHL 3bis, 1978, 2013), to which ideas, architectural forms, marble, columns, and sculptures were brought from both Ravenna and Rome so as to create a manifestation of the power of the emperor, pointing both backward to tradition and forward to something new (Fabricius Hansen 2003: 157ff; Tekippe 2004).

A newer example is when the balcony of the Berlin City Palace (Berliner Stadtschloss), from which Karl Liebknecht had declared the formation of the Free Socialist German Republic in 1918, was incorporated in the State Council Building (Staatsratsgebäude) in East Berlin in 1963. The City Palace, which was blown up as a Prussian symbol in 1950, has been under reconstruction since 2013 ( Three of four facades are being reconstructed, but the fourth is completely new, as is everything inside. That, then, is a modern example of historicising architecture that combines old and new, but without suggesting any nostalgic yearning for imperial Germany. The building will also have a new name – the Humboldt Forum (

The French Revolution began a period of radical changes, but it is by no means the only revolution. In a global perspective, there are many other well-known political, economic, social, religious, technological, and scientific revolutions, just as there have been notable counter-revolutions and radical changes that have not been classed as revolutions. And revolutions and other upheavals do not necessarily generate nostalgic feelings.

Nostalgia’s longing for a different time or place does not need to arise if the change or break brings liberation. If the past or the place one came from was painful, there is no point in missing it; and if the development or relocation is experienced as progress, there is no loss involved and nothing to compensate for.

Hence, nostalgia does not suffice to understand and explain the multifaceted relationship of the present to the past. Nostalgia becomes attached to the beautiful perspective with its therapeutic narratives. But historical consciousness, museums, monuments, architecture, and novels are about things other and more than beauty, and the same applies to tourism. Enlightenment knowledge and the ethical demand constitute motives, too, particularly in the emergence of museums and canonisation of monuments.

When Fritzsche wrote that history was the only possible escape in a turbulent present (Fritzsche 2004: 10), he was not convincing. First, people could physically escape to other places, that is emigrate, as many were forced to do during the French Revolution, a point that Fritzsche himself noted (Fritzsche 2004: 33ff). Second, people could move in their imagination, not only to the past but also to fictional places in the present or the future. Today, many are able – provided they have the necessary resources (passport, visa, and money) – to travel in both time and space, both in reality and in their imagination. But not all journeys are nostalgic or involve an escape. At the same time, more people than ever before are forced to flee on account of war, poverty, and oppression.

When tourists travel to Abu Simbel, this has nothing to do with nostalgia, with an unhealthy or socially determined longing for a distant age; it has to do with an enchanted place. The Egypt of the pharaohs is a foreign time in a foreign country. Here the attraction is the meeting with what is different, with the exotic. Tourism permits a temporary move to another place that may surprise, instruct, attract, and provide food for thought.

Amelia B. Edwards thus described how she felt that time stood still at Abu Simbel, how time could be traversed:

It is a wonderful place to be alone in – a place in which the very darkness and silence are old, and in which Time himself seems to have fallen asleep. Wandering to and fro among these sculptured halls, like a shade among shadows, one seems to have left the world behind; to have done with the teachings of the present; to belong one’s self to the past. (Edwards 1877: 444f)

Secularisation and immortality

The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1997) is David Lowenthal’s follow-up to The Past is a Foreign Country (1985). In the new book, Lowenthal described heritage as a popular faith and a secular religion, just as heritage institutions were compared with the Church. Lowenthal compared the expansion of heritage with a medieval crusade, at the same time as the book itself was a crusade against the spread of heritage at the expense of history (Lowenthal 1997: 1f). Lowenthal is, however, by no means alone in comparing the handling of history, memory, and heritage to expressions of religion.

Another example is the political scientist Donald Horne, whose book The Great Museum: The Re-Presentation of History (1984) presents a critical, ironic, and moralising account of heritage tourism in Europe. Horne compares modern museums, exhibition objects, and tourists to medieval churches, relics, and pilgrims. Modern souvenirs and postcards are like medieval pilgrim badges. Photography has replaced participation in Mass. Graves of and monuments to national heroes are worshipped with rituals and devoutness as if they were secular saints. One example is Vladimir Lenin in the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow, part – since 1990 – of World Heritage along with the Kremlin and the Red Square (WHL 545, 1990). Horne found the background to heritage tourism in industrialism and modernity. For him, those two phenomena had created a crisis in and nervousness about the perception of reality, a state that could be diverted in a hunt for the authentic. The pilgrimage to the past thus becomes an escape from the disturbances of industrial society (Horne 1984: 1ff, 21ff).

Many other commentators have compared museums with temples or churches, the objects exhibited with relics, museum staff with priests, monuments with sacred reliquaries, tourists with pilgrims, and mass cultural tourism with a World Church and history in general with a religion (e.g. MacCannell 1976: 42ff; Choay 1992 (French): 101ff, 128f, 159ff, 186; 2001 (English): 87ff, 111f, 139ff, 163); Beckman 1993a: 31f; 1998: 32ff; Duncan 1995: 7ff; Hylland Eriksen 1996: 85.

What is common to Lowenthal, Horne, and others who have compared heritage and museums with a religion is that the analogy is meant to be a pejorative one. As researchers and authors in a secular age, they are making comparisons with something assumed to arouse unfavourable connotations. If we step back to a time when the Church still had a central religious and ideological role in the West, we find the same analogy in use, but at that time its connotations were favourable, the analogy being employed as an argument for heritage and museums. The analogy is thus used not for analysis, understanding, or explanation, but as a rhetorical argument adapted to the expectations and values of the time.

When, in 1806, the philologist Rasmus Nyerup drew inspiration from the Museum of French Monuments in Paris to argue for the foundation of a new national museum in Denmark –a museum that was initially called the Old Nordic Museum – he was hence able to describe it both as an “asylum for the otherwise increasingly disappearing old national memorials” and as “a temple for the remains of the spirit, and the language, art, and power of the past” (Nyerup 1806: VIII).

Finally, mention may be made of the art historian Alois Riegl, whose Der moderne Denkmalkultus, sein Wesen und seine Entstehung (“The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Its Origin”) reported the emergence in the nineteenth century of a cult, the worship of historical memorials, that had elements in common with a religious experience (Riegl 1903 (German): 18; 1929 (German): 157; 1982 (English): 29).

The analogy extends further, as is sometimes seen from the location and architecture of museums. New museums might be given a central place in the townscape, a location reminiscent of the place of the cathedral. Museums were located in or alongside the halls of power. The Old Nordic Museum in Copenhagen was located first in, and then close to, the royal palace of Christiansborg, which is now the Danish Parliament, just as the Museum Island in Berlin (WHL 896, 1999) is beside the cathedral and royal palace. Museums could also take over buildings from which power had previously been exercised, such as the Louvre in Paris (WHL 600, 1991; and the Forbidden City in Beijing (WHL 439bis, 2004). And the architecture of a museum might assume the shape of a classical temple, such as the British Museum (, or of a medieval cathedral, for instance the Natural History Museum (, both in London.

It can be concluded that the analogy between heritage and museums on the one hand and religion and churches on the other is, first and foremost, a rhetorical strategy, the meaning of the analogy varying with the context. Next, a subtext can be sensed in the sharp criticism of the expansion of heritage. It is a subtext about historians wanting to defend their field of research, regarding a focus on textual analysis and on critical use as a matter of greater importance than materiality and experiences. Similarly, an elitist perspective may be discerned behind the harsh criticism of mass tourism, a criticism that contains poorly concealed contempt for the popular and for mass travel. The problem is the social context and the intrusive quantity. There is certainly prestige in travelling along the trails of the peregrinations, or Grand Tours, of the past, but not in travelling like the great majority of people: nothing against a visit to Venice, but not as one of millions of tourists each year. A distance from the common folk is called for.

During the period when some critics used the analogy between heritage and religion as derogatory rhetoric, others actually wanted to see a linkage that was not fortuitous. The idea is that a gradual secularisation, or religion becoming less important, caused a greater need for heritage. The decline in faith in God owing to secularisation needs to be compensated for. An apparently constant need for community, meaning, and security means that an older religious narrative is replaced by a new one, woven around the nation and the history of the people. History, memory, and heritage are linked up with a nationalised past.

The demographer and historian Philippe Ariès, who was associated with the French Annales School, did not discuss the emergence of heritage, monuments, and museums in his Western Attitudes toward Death. With a broad brush, however, he outlined a connection between Romanticism’s cult of the grave and worship of the nation’s dead heroes. In Ariès’s view, this striving for immortality emerged from the end of the eighteenth century onwards along with secularisation, industrialisation, and urbanisation (Ariès 1974: 55ff).

In Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies (1992), Zygmunt Bauman asserted that human beings are defined by their awareness of death. Fear of death and the endeavour to achieve immortality are fundamental to human existence. In order to master their mortality, human beings try to ensure a continuation of life beyond physical death. Christianity and several other religions promise an eternal life. With modernity, human beings must instead seek a place in the memory of their survivors. Individual historical immortality was the prerogative of an elite, small in number, while the masses had to make do with immortality as a collective, as the people of the nation.

As an extension of Ariès and Bauman, the archaeologist Ola W. Jensen has shown in concrete terms how this striving after immortality for the nation’s dead was manifested in a cult linked to graves, statues, monuments, and museums. Heritage became a material expression of the soul of the nation. The preservation of heritage therefore had an existential explanation (e.g. Jensen 1998; also Grundberg 2004: 13).

Death as a threat and the striving after immortality have a central role in myths, religion, psychology, and philosophy. Death, or the awareness of death, is something that needs to be overcome or compensated for. The hero tries to combat or outwit death.

King Sisyphus was punished precisely for having tried to overcome death. To obtain water for his palace in Corinth, Sisyphus had told Asopos, the river god, that Zeus had kidnapped his daughter Aegina. Zeus then sent Thanatos, the god of death, to chain Sisyphus in the underworld; but Sisyphus managed to imprison Death. Thanatos was subsequently freed by Ares, the god of war, who was annoyed that no warriors died. Sisyphus ended up with Hades in the land of the dead; but when he was allowed to visit the earth and his wife, he did not return. Sisyphus was then collected by Hermes. He would only be set free again if he succeeded in rolling a great stone up a hill, but the stone always rolled all the way back down again. His effort was in vain (cf. Camus 1942 (French): 163ff; 2005 (English): 107ff).

In philosophy, death may be identified as being essential to human beings. In Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) by the philosopher Martin Heidegger, death was thus obscurely described as an existential condition that constitutes the wholeness of life. Life was characterised both by a flight from death and by a constant decline until death. The threat of individual death with its loneliness and emptiness evokes a fundamental anxiety (Heidegger 1927 (German): §§46–53: 235ff; 1996 (English): §§46–53: 219ff).

Cognitive research also holds that human beings are unique in being aware of their own mortality. The dream of eternal life is therefore something distinctive only of human beings; and so is reflection, in a spirit of wonder, about the meaning of life (Gärdenfors 2006: 33ff).

In Das Unbehagen in der Kultur (Civilization and its Discontents), physician and psychologist Sigmund Freud held that human beings possess two fundamental drives that are both restricted by civilisation: on the one hand an erotic and creative drive and on the other the destructive death drive. However, suppression of the death drive and aggression leads to neuroses, guilt feelings, angst, and discomfort (Freud 1930 (German): 89ff; 2004 (English): 68ff).

In a reinterpretation of psychoanalysis in his Life against Death, the historian Norman O. Brown asserted that human beings are imprisoned by the past, just as hysterical patients cannot break free from the past. In his view, the bond of all cultures to heritage is neurotic. And the background to the human preoccupation with the past (and the future) is a fundamental fear of death, which separates human beings from animals. Civilisation and monuments are attempts to overcome death, to create immortality. Brown’s purpose was to free human beings from the burden of history, the dead hand of the past (Brown 1959: 11ff, 87ff, 283ff).

Inspired by the psychoanalysis of Adler and Freud, but with a more encouraging approach, the psychologist Rollo May interpreted artistic and scientific creativity in The Courage to Create as a reaction to human mortality; that is, as a rebellion against death or the gods. The creative person is a rebel in his or her longing for immortality (May 1975: 25ff, 36ff).

We can only accept that death may play a central role, that death anxiety can occur, and that people can daydream about immortality, but not always and everywhere. Depicting life as a journey towards death, and creativity as a question of compensation and neuroses, is reductive. Freud asserted both a life drive and a death drive, both Eros and Thanatos. Consequently, death is not everything in life, even though death has the last word for each individual.

History, memory, and culture do, of course, have several motives, values, and potential uses. The past has multiple meanings, meanings that reach beyond a reductive and compensatory mechanics.

To be specific, gradual secularisation may be questioned as an explanation of death anxiety and the striving after immortality, or of cults based on graves, statues, monuments, museums, and heritage. For these phenomena are not new, and they are found across cultural and religious borders. This once again brings to mind the temples of Ramses II at Abu Simbel more than 3200 years ago.

Materialised memories

The temples at Abu Simbel are striking monuments. Their dating is certain – around 1260 BCE. And their originator is well known: the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II, also called the Great (e.g. MacQuitty 1965; Desroches Noblecourt 2007: 116ff). But why were they erected?

Monuments are an attempt to lay down enduring memories that are readily visible and generally “monumental”, that is, of an imposing size; they are intended to make an impression. But the key point about a monument is precisely the memory, as indicated by the word itself. “Monument” comes from the Latin words monumentum/monere, meaning to remind or exhort. But remembering may assume many forms – thinking, carrying out ritual acts, or using aids such as images and script. To create a monument is to give memories material form. And to ensure the permanence of the monument, preferably for an envisaged eternity, it is often created in durable materials such as earth, stone, or metal.

The temples at Abu Simbel are typical monuments: they are monumental and materialised in stone, carved directly out of the sandstone cliffs. And the temples mediate narratives about the past by means of hieroglyphs, painted images, and sculptures.

Dolmens, barrows, pyramids, temples, menhirs, runic stones, and churches have attracted attention by virtue of their visibility in the landscape. They also form starting points for mythical popular tales about gods, giants, and powerful individuals (cf. Burström et al. 1997; Gazin-Schwartz & Holtorf 1999). Then, when archaeology emerged as a method and a scholarly discipline, the monuments in the landscape became a source of knowledge for all to see. And the collective term is precisely “monument” – the monumental.

There has been a great deal of research about materialised memories since the transformation of Eastern Europe and the USSR as of 1989, which was followed by extensive iconoclasm; but the research started earlier. In theoretical terms, there has been an interest in collective memories; that is, how groups in a society or a nation create and maintain common memories (cf. Halbwachs 1992). Specifically, there has been an interest in surveying and describing national memorials from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The research has been carried out by ethnologists and historians and the collective term has generally been “memorial”, the marking of a memory (e.g. Gillis 1994; Frykman & Ehn 2007; Adriansen 2010).

As terms, “monument” and “memorial” have essentially the same origin and meaning, and they are often used in a somewhat haphazard manner. However, the choice of term may be seen to define two distinct discourses. On the one hand, archaeologists have studied prehistoric and ancient monuments; on the other, historians and ethnologists have studied historical memorials. The history of art has taken an interest in both monuments and memorials, applying an aesthetic perspective. And with a long-term perspective, a few archaeologists have also gone beyond the chronology of the discourses (e.g. Holtorf 1997; Wienberg 2007: 241).

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss divided societies into two universal and contrasting types: “cold” primitive societies and “hot” modern ones. Cold societies were also called mechanical and were compared with clockwork, whereas hot modern societies were referred to as thermodynamic and compared with steam engines. Primitive societies remained in their original state, but they were egalitarian and in harmony with themselves and nature. Their social order was maintained with the aid of tradition. The “wisdom” of primitive societies excludes history, and they therefore seem to be ahistorical. But the primitive societies that Lévi-Strauss was thinking of were societies of hunters and gatherers that were thought to be under threat in his time, and that he clearly idealised. Warm, modern, or civilised societies came into being as a result of the introduction of agriculture; they are dynamic and therefore in imbalance. Modern societies such as the Mediterranean city states or the industrialised states of the nineteenth century extract energy from social differences. That causes disorder or entropy between people, but recreates order as culture. According to Lévi-Strauss, modern societies make slaves of people in order to create progress; and they use history as a motor in their development (Charbonnier 1961 (French): 37ff; 1969 (English): 32ff; Lévi-Strauss 1966: 121f).

Ramses II’s Egypt could be characterised as a hot and civilised agricultural society to whose development social differences and history contributed. In its simple form, however, the dichotomy does not lead to greater understanding or a better explanation of the pharaoh’s constructional zeal.

The notion of the “primitive society” had a fundamental position in anthropology for a long time. But the classification made by Claude Lévi-Strauss and others into primitive societies and civilisations, cold and hot societies, can be characterised as an illusion bound up with evolutionism and colonialism. The primitive cold society has never existed as an initial state; it was a consequence of colonisation. The primitive and apparently ahistorical societies made up the periphery of a world system in which only the centre was in possession of civilisation and history. The primitive society was constructed as the “other”, as an antithesis or an inverted mirror image of the anthropologists’ own modern Western society (Kuper 1988; Friedman 1994: 4f, 23f).

The idea that there is a linkage between power and monuments is not new. Ibn Khaldûn thus took the view that monuments – large construction works – were proportionate to the original power of a dynasty. Consequently, the monument was intended to demonstrate the strength of a dynasty (Khaldûn 1958: vol. 1, Chapter III, §16, pp. 356f).

At the same time as criticism of the (ab)use of the past appeared in the 1970s, concepts such as power, manipulation, and legitimation also became central to archaeology’s interpretation of the past. The purpose of building monuments was thus to show and legitimise power – just as monuments were used to legitimise social and mental changes (Trigger 1990: 124ff). Monuments were then linked either to the establishment and consolidation of new elites and ideas or to a situation in which established elites and ideas were being challenged.

The erection of monuments has also more generally been linked to periods of crisis. A society under stress or in imbalance, threatened from within or without, would therefore be characterised by megalomaniac building. The monuments were precisely monumental, large and if possible enduring, so as to influence the landscape and memory for a long time to come; and they became connected to collective rituals. The monuments were intended to counter or conceal conflicts. From such a perspective, monuments do not testify to power and pride; rather, they should be viewed in relation to attempts at compensation when a collapse seems imminent. The monuments were intended as material communication, the use of signs increasing in periods of “social stress”. The greater the monuments, the greater the desperation; or the more monuments, the closer the society is to collapse (e.g. Gren 1994). But just as the popularity of heritage may be used to postulate a crisis, the very existence of monuments can make archaeologists and others assert the existence of a crisis. Cause and effect may be turned around again.

The French project Les Lieux de mémoire (Realms of Memory), led by the historian Pierre Nora, has had a great influence on the study of memorials. In an introduction entitled “Entre mémoire et histoire” (“Between Memory and History”), Nora differentiated between memory and history, and he asserted that sites of memory are put in place when memory is threatened. The term “sites of memory” is used broadly about museums, archives, churches, anniversaries, memorials, and other entities intended to stop time and immortalise. The living and genuine memory or tradition is replaced by a constructed history – a development characterised as a secularisation. The sites of memory are thus seen as being linked to modernity, which breeds oblivion and where a break with the past is the prerequisite for nostalgia. Nora saw loss and oblivion when industrialisation brought about the disappearance of agrarian culture at the end of the nineteenth century (Nora 1984 (French); 1989 (English); 1996 (English)).

The temples of Abu Simbel were undoubtedly a manifestation of power. But when the temples were constructed, Ramses II was not actually a pharaoh who needed to legitimise his power. He had ruled for around 30 years, was the third pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty, and was himself the son of a pharaoh. Nor was he threatened by outer or inner enemies; a peace treaty had been concluded with the Hittite Empire at the time of the construction of the temples. It is hard to postulate a situation of “social stress”, secularisation, or modernity, and there was no threat of collapse. The temples were constructed at the border to Nubia, so it can be claimed that there was a need to mark power and legitimacy in relation to potentially hostile neighbours. At the same time, however, Ramses II had numerous other construction works built along the Nile, far from the border. Still, the temples can certainly be described as sites of memory, since they were full of accounts of events during Ramses’ reign.

With the turn in archaeology away from social and economic explanations to symbolism and cosmology, monuments have been interpreted in new ways. Monuments are nowadays related to cosmological ideas about time and space. The importance of rituals is stressed, as is the fact that monuments were constantly being reshaped according to new needs (e.g. Bradley 1993).

Cosmology is also relevant to a discussion of Abu Simbel. The great temple with its four colossal statues presents Ramses II as the ruler of both Upper and Lower Egypt and as the gods Re-en-Hekau, Heka-Taw, Mery-Amun, and Mery-Atum (Desroches-Noblecourt & Gerster 1968: 19f). Politics and ritual were combined in the pharaoh.

Was Abu Simbel an expression of nostalgia, a yearning for a lost age? No; Ramses II was not likely to think with nostalgia of the Battle of Kadesh, which was depicted in the interior of the great temple. But a visitor will soon discover that the battle is represented as a great victory for the warrior pharaoh, which is not in fact correct. The battle ended as a kind of draw. The Egyptians had to withdraw, and a peace treaty was concluded later on (cf. MacQuitty 1965: 107ff; Desroches Noblecourt 2007: 60ff, 153ff). Abu Simbel as a monument thus had the purpose of mediating a doctored memory, “alternative facts” – or, put more clearly, a propaganda lie. The monument was intended to manipulate the visitor.

Abu Simbel is not about secularisation, and nor is it about fear of death. Even so, the centrality of death was a characteristic of Ancient Egypt. It was crucial to enter the land of the dead in the right way, to embalm the body, to provide the necessary possessions, and to take effective measures against grave plunderers. Here the word “stress” may well be used. But Abu Simbel was not a burial site. Ramses II was buried further down the Nile in the Valley of the Kings, where the burial chamber was subject to flooding, and his mummy was moved several times before it could finally be exhibited in Cairo.

A feature shared by both monuments and memorials is that, without recurrent rituals that can keep the memory alive, they soon become places of oblivion (e.g. Connerton 1989). Irrespective of whether the purpose is to remember, legitimise, or manipulate, the original message is soon forgotten. In spite of their durable materials, monuments and memorials change, are reinterpreted, or fall into decay. As the author Robert Musil puts it in the essay “Denkmale”: “Es gibt nichts auf der Welt, was so unsichtbar wäre wie Denkmäler” (“There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument”) (Musil 1936 (German): 87; 2006 (English): 64). And as a closing reply to the question why memorials are then raised to commemorate great men, Musil wrote: “Es scheint eine ganz ausgesuchte Bosheit zu sein. Da man ihnen im Leben nicht mehr schaden kann, stürzt man sie gleichsam mit einem Gedenkstein um den Hals, ins Meer des Vergessens” (“This seems to be a carefully calculated insult. Since we can do them no more harm in life, we thrust them with a memorial stone hung around their neck into the sea of oblivion”) (Musil 1936 (German): 92f; 2006 (English): 68).

From this, it is no great leap to assert that the real function of a monument and memorial is to allow us to forget. The monument and memorial can relieve traumatic memories. And if forgetting was not the explicit purpose, it was the unintended consequence (e.g. Rowlands 1999).

Every monument or memorial therefore comes into conflict with its own paradoxical capacity to foster forgetting. New forms for creating permanence are constantly being tested. One such example is the Holocaust monument “Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas” (“Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”) in central Berlin, based on a drawing by the architect Peter Eisenman and inaugurated in 2005. With its 2177 concrete blocks of varying sizes and an associated underground information centre, the monument is not easy to ignore. A completely different example is the artist Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”), which are intended to be reminders of individual victims of the Holocaust in the pavement in front of their last address (

Ramses II’s intention in constructing the temples of Abu Simbel was not that he and his achievements should be forgotten; quite the contrary. However, Abu Simbel was damaged in an earthquake just a few years after its inauguration. The head of one of the colossal figures at the great temple fell off. The constantly shifting sands gradually covered the front of the temples, and their stories about Ramses II and the Battle of Kadesh were forgotten. To be sure, the temples remained visible and familiar to local people, but their entrances sanded up so that their interior became inaccessible. The temples were only reopened when they were discovered by European adventurers, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt and Giovanni Battista Belzoni, early in the nineteenth century.

But here, again, Ramses II and his temples at Abu Simbel depart from expectations. For Ramses II actually did succeed in maintaining the memory of himself as a great pharaoh. His mummy is preserved in Cairo. The temples have been given a new function as a tourist destination and World Heritage site. The temples with their texts, images, and sculptures are mediated in numerous ways – through visits to the site or in reconstructions, in books and films, and on the Internet.

Sisyphus has been mentioned several times, and he will be mentioned again. The stone he is rolling may be viewed as a metaphor for the attempt to establish a memory, to place a memory stone at the top of the hill – something that constantly fails, with Ramses II as a rare exception. However, Sisyphus rolling a stone in vain may also bring to mind the many attempts made to understand and explain heritage. New perspectives, interpretations, and examples are constantly thrown into the discussion; but every single time, there is something that does not add up. The interpretative models so far have either encompassed internal contradictions, or Abu Simbel and other examples have not fitted them.

Community and meaning

It is easy to be overwhelmed, confused, or surprised in the face of the multiplicity of views, perspectives, arguments, and examples that characterise the debate about history, memory, and heritage. Conflicting positions are often uncompromising and uncomprehending about one another. But it is possible to detect (or construct) patterns in the debate that make the different positions comprehensible.

This multiplicity can be divided into two sides on the basis of the two cultures of heritage. On one side is the canonical tradition that perceives heritage as a resource to protect, preserve, document, and mediate. On the other side is the critical tradition that sees heritage as something to redefine, an obstacle, something that should be limited and, if possible, overcome. Where the canonical tradition perceives possibilities for development, the critical tradition sees symptoms of crisis and needs for compensation. The marked contrast between the positions may be an expression of different social discourses that may themselves be rooted in education and employment – “antiquarians” with the task of managing the heritage and “critics” free to comment. But that is obviously a simplification. For even if “heritage lovers” are seen among the managers and “heritage iconoclasts” among the critics, attitudes can be placed on a scale with many nuances. And individuals may move between different positions in the field, adopting dissimilar standpoints in the process.

The multiplicity can also be divided between theoretical intentions and practical realities. Here the contrast appears to run between all the justifications, motives, values, and uses on the one hand and an extensive criticism of concrete (ab)use and various crisis or compensation theories on the other. Once again, though, it is not quite that simple. For irrespective of whether it conveys praise or criticism, speaking or writing is also an act – an act whose purpose and outcome may in fact be that of creating new realities. And there are theoretical perspectives across the whole field, implicit or explicit.

Finally, the multiplicity may also be divided according to the triad of the true, the beautiful, and the good; that is, according to knowledge, aesthetics, and ethics. Different priorities that are not always explicit appear in the debate – priorities to the effect that new knowledge, entertaining narratives, or ethical duties already are, or ought to be, decisive in relation to the past. These perspectives extend across the other divisions and across discourses about intention versus practice. The triad is hence also relevant to the debate about (ab)use, since the true or false, beautiful or ugly, and good or evil can be combined in many ways.

My experience of applying the triad’s perspectives to the debate about history, memory, and heritage has ended in the conclusion that nothing is obvious or indisputable. It is all a matter of making choices, of justifying priorities, where it is not possible to rely on rules that have been established once and for all. Every attempt to specifically assert one justification, one motive, one value, one use, one position, or one theory for the whole of the field, with all of its variation across time and space, must therefore be met with scepticism – including my own attempts.

In the debate, dividing lines appear between left and right that may be linked to academic environments in Frankfurt and Münster in Germany, respectively. Classic positions concerning the relationship between high and popular culture, and between theoretical education and practical experience, come to the fore as well. And the hard rhetoric, the slogans, the crisis, and the comparison with religion are comprehensible when it is understood that it is all really about politics, specifically the politics of heritage. The challenge is to be persuasive.

Nor can it come as any surprise, when faced with choices, priorities, and politics, that the present makes its mark on the debate about the past. Justifications, motives, values, uses, criticism, and theories have both senders and recipients in the present. Ideas about the past are ideas in the present. This is particularly clear in the debate about (ab)use as well as about crisis and compensation theory. Even though the subject is the past, a radical criticism of the present appears, irrespective of whether the present is regarded as modern, postmodern, or something else again. History, memory, and heritage are used as a pretext for criticism of society. The growing popularity of heritage becomes a reason to shout “crisis!”. But despite criticism of nostalgia as a phenomenon, the criticism itself, paradoxically, frequently bears the unambiguous stamp of nostalgia. Everything was better before – even when it comes to the use of the past.

One after another, a whole series of critical commentators appear to have experienced a deterioration – Boulez and Wright from a focus on the future to one on the past; Lowenthal from the familiar to the foreign, from change to preservation, and from history to heritage; Horkheimer and Adorno from (high) culture to popular culture; Hewison from industry to heritage industry; Heller from progress to nostalgia; Choay from the natural to the artificial; Huyssen from fact to fiction; Füredi from thinking to narrating; Beckman from security to uncertainty; Marquard from meaning to meaninglessness; Lübbe from identity to lack of identity; Hobsbawm from continuity to discontinuity; Tarkovsky and Hofer from home to exile; Kant from childhood to adult life; Horne from harmony to nervousness; Bauman and Jensen from faith to doubt; Freud and Brown from nature to culture or civilisation; Lévi-Strauss from the primitive society to civilisation; and Nora from memory to history: a multiplicity of “falls” at different points in time, like pearls on a string.

Norman W. Brown concluded that society was neurotic and sick. The roots of its neurosis were civilisation, money, the city, and capitalism, which were repressive. He characterised his present as a “tragic crisis” in which human beings, with their death instinct and weapons of mass destruction, were threatened by ruin and disaster (Brown 1959: x, 234ff).

Both Donald Horne and Agnes Heller regarded Europe as a museum – and that was not meant as praise. As onlookers from the New World, Horne from Australia and Heller from the US, they observed a European continent sunk in its own past. Heller wrote a funeral address for Europe – the museum that she herself had left: weakened creativity, acquired idiocy and narrow-mindedness, loss of meaning and cultural masochism. She wanted to see a “new European culture”, a dream of an authentic culture characterised by virtues, taste, reason, education, urbanity, joy, nobility, and dignity, as well as love of nature, poetry, music, drama, painting, piety, and erotic culture (Horne 1984: 1, 21; Heller 1988: 154, 158f).

This kind of criticism can be exposed as an example of pessimistic cultural philosophy, an activity in which intellectuals look at and criticise their present in a spirit of anxiety and nostalgia (cf. Nordin 1989). The developments leading up to the crisis-ridden present are set forth as a typical tragic narrative (cf. White 1973: 191ff).

Criticism along these lines is characterised as follows in the unfinished Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project) by the philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin:

Es hat keine Epoche gegeben, die sich nicht im exzentrischen Sinne “modern” fühlte und unmittelbar vor einem Abgrund zu stehen glaubte. Das verzweifelt helle Bewußtsein, inmitten einer entscheidenden Krisis zu stehen, ist in der Menschheit chronisch. Jede Zeit erscheint sich ausweglos neuzeitig. Das “Moderne” aber ist genau in dem Sinne verschieden wie die verschiedenen Aspekte ein und desselben Kaleidoskops. (Benjamin 1983 (German): II, 677)

There has never been an epoch that did not feel itself to be “modern” in the sense of eccentric, and did not believe itself to be standing directly before an abyss. The desperately clear consciousness of being in the middle of a crisis is something chronic in humanity. Every age unavoidably seems to itself a new age. The “modern”, however, is as varied in its meaning as the different aspects of one and the same kaleidoscope. (Benjamin 1999 (English): 545)

The kaleidoscope displays an ever-changing succession of attractive images – social, economic, political, ideological, religious, or existential crises. Either there is too much modernity or too little. There is always something to be worried about, always a change that can be regarded as being for the worse. The crisis is chronic.

It is not hard to understand that crisis theory is popular, but its explanatory capacity is an illusion. Whenever crisis theory seems to be able to explain most things or make them comprehensible, this is due to the complex ambiguity of the theory with its open concepts, uncertain chronology, hand-picked or absent empirical data, and, at times, obscure language. There may be reason to be sceptical of theories that employ metaphors and analogies and cannot be tested (cf. Sokal & Bricmont 1998: 8ff, 59). Nor is there a single crisis theory; there are many, they are various, and time and again they contradict one another. All they have in common is crisis as a concept and, of course, criticism.

Crisis theory as a critical perspective is itself open to criticism. As a perspective, however, it cannot in fact be falsified and is therefore unscientific in the sense formulated by the philosopher Karl Popper (Popper 1935 (German); 1959 (English)). And the same accusation could be levelled at compensation theory.

But even if crisis theory is criticised and referred to as unscientific, it will not go away, as it satisfies ideological and psychological needs for criticism of the present. Instead of a possibly vain struggle against the paradoxical claims of the theory, alternative perspectives are called for. The criticism of the criticism must be supplemented by something constructive and concrete that opens the way to further inquiry and debate.

So far, the debate about history, memory, and heritage has focused wholly on events and phenomena since the end of the eighteenth century. The debate has been about revolution, Romanticism, nationalism, secularisation, and modernity – and about the establishment of academic disciplines, memorials, museums, and legislation pertaining to the protection and preservation of ancient monuments. Its geographical focus is the industrialised Western world. But history, memory, and heritage are neither a relatively new nor an exclusively Western phenomenon.

When Abu Simbel is so often highlighted in this inquiry, it is because the place represents both the past and the present, both heritage and modernity, and is outside Europe. At Abu Simbel there is a time depth of thousands of years, which can supplement or correct the focus on the West in the debate. Moreover, the texts of Herodotus and Ibn Khaldûn form a simple reminder that people thought about the past long ago, too, and in other cultures.

The multiplicity of views, perspectives, arguments, and examples that characterises the debate about history, memory, and heritage can no longer come as a surprise. It is possible to explain and understand the variation that prevails in justifications, motives, values, uses, criticism, and theories. But what remains is a sense of wonder at the importance of the past in a changing present and, more specifically, puzzlement regarding the relationship between World Heritage and modernity. Is it possible to perceive a general pattern after all?

Research about human evolution can be combined with spolia from my inquiry; the answer will therefore be of a fundamental but also very general nature. I find three observations, in particular, useful as spolia: 1) presentism; that is, the view that opinions, perspectives, and arguments are generally conditioned by their present; 2) the connections between nationalism and collective memory, where the past has been used in the construction of identities; that is, who a person is seen as being by themselves or by others; 3) the similarity between heritage and museums on the one hand and religious institutions and rituals on the other, but without an implication that the analogy is somehow unfavourable. Key words are therefore currency, identity, and analogy. The inspiration comes from studies of social evolution: the past is used in order to create meaning in the present. Meaning is about who we are, have been, or are striving to become. And the similarity between heritage and museums on the one hand and religion on the other is due to the fact that they can all contribute to defining a social community.

In human evolution, culture is one of several possible aids in creating and maintaining a social community. Everything that has strengthened the community has provided an evolutionary advantage. Culture is an advantage for the survival of groups; it is one of several factors in selection and hence a precondition for the human conquest of the world (Boyd 2009; Wilson, E. O. 2012). The knowledge, narratives, and rules of heritage are means in the construction of social ties and in establishing cooperation. The true, the beautiful, and the good are all useful in evolution. History, memory, and heritage have a function in creating and maintaining communities. This is why the past has been so useful in both religion and nationalism.

Religious communities are built up around mythical narratives and texts; holy places, persons, monuments, and relics; and offices and ceremonies linked to a historical tradition. Common religious ideas play their part in strengthening social cohesion; they foster cooperation and therefore the potential for survival. Religion creates meaning and therefore motivation for both individuals and groups, and religion is an advantage in competition between groups (Wilson, D. S. 2002; Wilson, E. O. 2012: 255ff; cf. Gärdenfors 2006: 133ff). Consequently, the analogy between heritage and religion is no coincidence. But instead of employing the analogy as an element in derogatory rhetoric, it can be used to understand and explain the importance of heritage.

Similarly, ideas about the nation are built up around myths or narratives about a common past; a common country with canonical places, monuments, and events; and a common material or intangible culture mediated not least in print. Nationalism creates the nation. And nations may, to use the words of the social anthropologist Benedict Anderson, be described as “imagined communities” since not all members are able to know one another. Anderson ascribed particular significance to censuses, maps, and museums for the idea of the nation (Anderson 1991). Nationalism was and is a modern ideology for countering social disruption in industrial societies, and as such it may supplement or replace religious communities (Gellner 1983).

History, memory, and heritage are tools for creating and maintaining communities at all levels from the immediate family to humanity. But the starting points do not need to be true in a scientific sense, beautiful in an aesthetic sense, or good in an ethical sense. The common history, memory, and heritage may be magical, mythological, mendacious, unauthentic, invented, imagined, illusory, nostalgic, or creative. All that matters is its usefulness in creating meaning and cohesion.

Heritage is used creatively in order to generate meaning. Human beings are searchers for meaning, Homo opinans. Meaning can be found in knowledge, narratives, and rules that link up with the past. Selected parts – those that are useful – are drawn from the past; these are spolia. And in the encounter between past and present, between fragments of past and current needs, something new is created. The remains of the past are transformed and given new meaning. In this way, all use of the past is creative in the sense of making something that did not exist before.

With the evolutionary perspective, history, memory, and heritage become a fundamental human practice. Meanings have then been added by existentially thinking human beings. Practice goes before justifications and values. And the multiple meanings and manifold critical theories are an expression of the human search for understanding and explanation. Meanings are not discovered, but created.

Before we open the door to the laboratory where theories and concepts can be confronted with concrete specifics, it is necessary to explain the central concepts and history-of-ideas context of crisis theory. What is meant by progress, modern, modernisation, modernism, modernity, and postmodernity? Is there still progress, but without belief in the future? Is the present modern, postmodern, or hypermodern? And what is the relationship between the phases of modernity and the many expressions of nostalgia? Is nostalgia a reaction to modernity or itself part of modernity? In short, we are going to be looking at time and perceptions of time.

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World Heritage and modernity


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