Samburu man at traditional wedding, Marsabit region, Kenya by Dr. Ondřej Havelka (cestovatel), CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Exploring the meaning of Heritage – Past, Present and Future

This article by Anouk Inonge Boer delves into the intricacies of the term ‘heritage’- how official classifications of what constitutes heritage can have both positive and negative effects on communities, and what working in heritage as ADH means for us now and in the future.

Examining the most frequently used concepts on our website and you can probably tell that defining them is no easy task. What is African, Heritage, Culture, Authentic, Identity, White or Black, Developing countries, Third World or Global South, Decolonial or Postcolonial, Ethnicity, Race, Diaspora, Memory, Afro, Roots and Tradition? 

Their meaning is debated, defined and redefined in countless discussions and academic papers, yet in practice we often use these words without conscious consideration. Even when we critically think through the implication of our choice in words, it often still remains contested and might be received contrary to its intention. 

Since language is fluid and different for each user, we (ADH) could never obligate the use of any specific words. In this short blog post we won’t provide a full literature review, or all appropriations of certain concepts throughout time. But, we will share a tiny introduction into the evolutions of certain concepts, together with some additional sources (if you’d like to geek out like us). 

Let’s take one of our key-concepts to start us off; Heritage. 

Heritage as a concept is not necessarily complicated in terms of alternative usages. The meaning of heritage, the qualities it holds and the boundaries of what it connotes are however contested by different actors and have changed throughout time. According to Chilton, these changes can majorly be summarised by the following societal changes ‘(1) adoption of the World Heritage Convention and its focus on “global heritage”; (2) the rise of the concept of “intangible heritage” and recognition for it; (3) postmodern influences on the humanities and social sciences; and (4) community engagement and the democratisation of heritage’ (2019, 26). 

Rather than repeating her chronological approach, here we will briefly examine key thematics that are important for understanding the basics of  heritage as a concept and, since it is a pillar of the work of ADH, particularly discuss the latest development in the field; community engagement and the democratisation of heritage. 

Where the boundaries of heritage lie and what heritage does creates different power dynamics. When you look at the map of UNESCO’s world heritage sites, this immediately becomes clear. While Europe and North-America share 546 sites, the African continent has to make do with 98. The difference in numbers can be attributed to multiple factors, but in essence point towards two factors; what is considered heritage and who has the power to decide what constitutes (world) heritage

Heritage… is a process 

Heritage is the remains of the past that we preserve for the future. It is not an unconscious legacy of the past, but something we actively engage with, update and review in a contemporary way to keep it relevant. While heritage was previously and is still dominantly considered as tangible legacies of the past – think buildings, artefacts, landscapes and statues, actors within the field are more and more aware of its natural and intangible counterpart. Heritage can be our language, dance, food, knowledge and folklore.

According to Laura-Jane Smith in her book “Uses of Heritage”, heritage is not a ‘thing’, a ‘site’ or other material objects. She suggests that heritage ‘is a cultural process that engages with acts of remembering that work to create ways to understand and engage with the present, and the sites themselves are cultural tools that can facilitate, but are not vital to this process.’(Smith 2006, 44) Thus, rather than seeing heritage as static objects that inherently carry some sort of heritage core, it is about an action, about how we engage with certain tangible and intangible objects.

Heritage… can be polarising

The assumption that heritage possessed some sort of harmonising quality that stabilised nations, regions and identities is not completely wiped out with this ideology. To this day we still believe that heritage is important in processes of unification, yet more and more scholars have focused on the competing and clashing quality of heritage. As a result we have now reached a time where we are aware of competing, diverse and often contradicting ways in which heritage operates. In the field, we capture this by the term dissonant heritage (Tunbridge, J. E. and G. J. Ashworth 1996). 

We can elaborate on dissonance through providing you with a perhaps familiar Kenyan example. Two prominent statues in Nairobi, that of the first president Jomo Kenyatta (placed in 1973) and Mau Mau field marshal Dedan Kimathi (placed in 2007), tell very different stories of Kenyans past. Rather than one harmonising heritage narrative, these statues and the time they were placed, signal towards contrasting ideas about the heroes of the nation’s independence. While the time between the placement shows us the change in the official understanding of Kenya’s past, their remaining presence and current interpretation is particularly telling.

The complete disregard, disgust or celebration that one holds towards these statues is thereby different for each individual or group and changes throughout time.  For example Kimathi’s role in Kenya’s independence movement was not officially recognized until 2003 and many of his companions remain unrecognised. Current critique on the mass land ownership of the Kenyatta family on the other hand makes many Kenyans see ‘the father of the nation’ in a very different light. Without going into the specifics of who thinks what about these statues or the politics surrounding them, their mere presence shows us how heritage is not necessarily harmonising nor holds the same meaning for all. 

Heritage… is self-serving

Knowing what heritage is, and more importantly, what it does is extremely important. We must understand the valuable things that heritage and heritage work can bring us, while remaining conscious of the competing narratives that exist simultaneously. This is also where the later point kicks in, who has the power to decide what (world)heritage is? In the African context this is extremely important as the continent’s heritage has historically been stolen, underappreciated, rewritten, appropriated, silenced and censored. 

Restitution 101: Episode 01 A History Of Theft

Fighting back to these powers is a huge endeavour, yet vital if we want to continue taking back ownership of what is and always should have been African. Yet, when we highlight one heritage, there are simultaneously others we are excluding, different perspectives we are not considering and groups we are marginalising. 

To illustrate how these dynamics come together we can consider the nomination of Lamu Old Town as a world heritage site in 2001. First, we see again the power of UNESCO to appoint what constitutes world heritage. Their choice for Lamu old town is not surprising since it is one of Kenya’s heritage sites that are most inline with the Authoritarian Heritage Discourse that values tangible, ancient and architecturally important sites. While UNESCO acknowledges that there is world heritage to be found in Sub-Saharan Africa, choosing Lamu specifically reaffirms this static view on what heritage is.

Image of Lamu, Kenya under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Second, the recognition of the value of Swahili heritage is important for Lamu’s, and more broadly the coastal positioning within the nation. The separate status of the coast as a protectorate during British colonisation and the tribalism that was facilitated by British divide and rule strategies, have generated feelings of nostalgia, marginalisation and separation in the coast that flare up occasionally (represented in movements such as ́Pwani si Kenya´). The validation of their heritage as world heritage, and its consequential promotion for tourism (in Magical Kenya advertisement for example), gives them a recognition that they perceive as lacking otherwise. Yet third, the emphasis on Swahili heritage as the heritage of Kenya’s coastal region, completely ignores the presence of the Mijikenda and the valuable heritage these tribes carry. 

Heritage…. for ADH 

As we have seen, working with heritage is and will always be a field of ethics, reflection, nuance, supposition and ultimately one that is inseparable from power. 

Our awareness of these heritage characteristics however push us towards initiatives that foster participation, rather than authoritative top-down approaches. Working with African heritage, both in its digital and physical shape, should centre community engagement and democratisation. Heritage practice should furthermore be decolonial, yet critical and holistic in order to circumvent classic dichotomies between coloniser and colonised that skim-over historical and regional particularities. We aim to do this through a multitude of initiatives that foster Africa’s heritage sector in the areas of research, digitisation, capacity building and innovation. In the process of doing so, we collaborate with like minded entities, individuals and collectives and embed ourselves in both theory and practice, vouch for multivocal input. 

As a growing organisation within the African heritage field we make sure we stay aware of the growing power that comes with this. To remain close to these ideologies we strive to continue to incorporate our audiences and community in the work we do and to represent those voices that often remained unheard.  


Tunbridge, J. E. and G. J. Ashworth. (1996). “Dissonance in Heritage,” in

Dissonant Heritage and the Management of the Past

New York: Wiley, pp. 20-32

Lowenthal, David. (1998). “Fabricating Heritage”. History and Memory, vol. 10 (1), pp.5-24

Smith, Laurajane. (2006). “Heritage as a Cultural Process”. In Uses of Heritage. New York: Routledge, pp. 44-85

Chilton, E. (2019). The Heritage of Heritage. Defining the Role of the Past in Contemporary Societies. In Messenger, P. M., & Bender, S. J. ).  History and Approaches to Heritage Studies United States: University Press of Florida. 

Muthuma, L. (2020). How Public are Public Statues?  Retrieved from: 

Additional Sources on the meaning of heritage:

Harvey, David C. (2001). “Heritage Pasts and Heritage Presents: Temporality, Meaning and the Scope of Heritage Studies”. International Journal of Heritage Studies, vol. 7 (4), pp. 319-338

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