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The Politics of the Past: Heritage in a Changing World


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor and tutor: Dr Esther Breithoff
  • Assessment: a 4000-4500-word essay (75%) and presentation with 1000-word summary (25%)

Module description

Heritage has traditionally been considered to be something inherently ‘good’ - a treasure from a shared past that we cherish and protect in the present. But as George Orwell famously wrote in his novel 1984, ‘Who controls the past, controls the future.’ The power to designate certain objects, places and practices as valuable and in need of ‘saving’, inevitably also determines what is discarded and whose histories forgotten. In an uncertain world facing global challenges such as climate change, armed conflict, the rise of new nationalisms and social inequality, heritage is thus both a versatile concept and a powerful political tool.

In this module we use international case studies from different time periods, ranging from the classical period to the modern day, to challenge official heritage discourses, and to illustrate the ways in which the politics of the past are mediated in the present to build a multitude of potential futures.

Indicative syllabus

  • What is heritage and how to study it critically?
  • World heritage
  • Collecting, ordering, governing
  • The politics of the past
  • Conflict heritage
  • Memory and commemoration
  • Decolonising heritage
  • Digital heritage
  • Heritage futures in uncertain times
  • Heritage beyond saving

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will:

  • display a good knowledge of the key themes and debates in critical heritage studies
  • display a good knowledge of, and ability to handle with confidence, the most central relevant primary sources
  • understand the conceptual and methodological problems which arise in the study of historically distant theories, paradigms and practices
  • be able to situate the conceptual questions and issues arising from such study in the context of later and contemporary debates
  • be able to engage knowledgeably and critically with the main strands of recent scholarship and different methodological approaches to the subject.