Culture, Heritage, and Ethics

By Dr. Constantine Sandis[1]
Professor of Philosophy
University of Hertfordshire


Heritage is that which has been or may be inherited, regardless of its value. Unfortunately, the term ‘heritage’ (the thirteenth-century English word is derived from the Latin haeres, meaning heir or heiress) is nowadays frequently used for purposes best described as touristic, to sell everything from beer and tomatoes to cars, gardens, and hotels. It is possible to think of some of this heritage as non-cultural, or perhaps even anti-cultural. An even more plausible contender for this last set would be hooliganism, yet this is unlikely to feature in British magazines about heritage such as HeritageDiscover Britain, or British Heritage Magazine. And yet such anti-cultural behaviour may be as much a part of Britain’s culture as Big Ben, the Monarchy, Stilton cheese, the National Health Service, and Top of the Pops — the sort of things celebrated in Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic Ceremony Opening.

Heritage magazines may choose to focus on castles, lakes, and gardens (and do so for ostensibly sound commercial and aesthetic reasons), but it would be wrong to think of these paradigm cases as being definitive. On the contrary, we should be questioning whether they are even as common as contemporary popular opinion portrays them to be. To this conceptual mix we might wish to add the spurious distinction between so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. It is a mistake to think that cultural heritage is reserved for the former, that it privileges opera over football, Shakespeare over EastEnders, though we may of course choose to use terms like ‘culture’ in a more technical, narrower, sense.

Achievement and Atrocity

In distinguishing heritage from history, David Lowenthal has influentially argued that the former is a ‘celebration’ of the past.[2] But one need only think of the heritage of slavery to note that we should not assume that one’s cultural heritage is always, or even usually, celebrated. Even when it is, it doesn’t follow that the celebration in question is of the past, as opposed to a continuity that remains present. Nor need it be the case that the celebration is a justified one.

French Law explicitly allows for the production of foie gras as part of the country’s ‘cultural and gastronomic heritage’. By contrast, in July 2012 the state of California banned the production of foie gras, implementing a $1000 per-day penalty for serving it. Production has already been banned in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Norway, Poland, Israel, Switzerland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The city of Chicago banned its sale in 2006, only to have it overturned by then mayor Richard M. Daley. More surprisingly, perhaps, Germany’s Nazi Government had banned foie grasproduction in 1933, as part of a wider animal protection law signed by Hitler which began with the statement that ‘it is forbidden to unnecessarily torment or roughly mishandle an animal’. I do not intend to voice my own views on the ethics of food production here, but only to note that this much-bandied phrase ‘cultural heritage’ can include past, present, and future practices that are arguably immoral, from the exploits of Alexander the Great to fox-hunting and page three of The Sun.[3] This is so even when the heritage in question is celebrated (I shall later look at cases of heritage that is perceived as being tainted).

Though it may not be everybody’s cup of tea, Jennie Bristow is right to claim that ‘page Three is as much a part of British culture as a cup of tea’.[4] The positive judgment implied is, however, questionable. Pace Bristow, being part of one’s culture does not magically bestow a thing with positive value; it does not make it worthy of preservation. In the case in point, I believe we should regret that The Sun (let alone its third page) is part of our culture at all and take appropriate measures to change this state of affairs. But whatever one makes of this specific case, the point I wish to emphasise in this context is that even if anti-page-three campaigns were to prove successful, the page would remain part of British cultural heritage.

Heritage matters, but removing something from one’s culture does not eliminate it from one’s heritage. The acknowledgment of heritage forms part of the ethics of remembering, and it is important to remember both the good and the bad, atrocities as well as achievements. But at times we also have a duty to forget such things, for example when this is the best way of forging new relationships that avoid the perils of nostalgia. Lowenthal quotes a native American complaining that ‘white people don’t know what to remember and what to forget, what to let go of and what to preserve’.[5] Arguably, there is a corresponding right to be forgotten which in some countries allows for criminal records to be erased once convictions are spent. The European Court of Justice has recently appealed to such a right (convincing or otherwise) in relation to online privacy.[6]

The duty to remember something is a duty to preserve it in memory, be it individual or collective (such duties are frequently non-teleological in that they need not be driven by the prospect of some future good). This obligation must not be conflated with a duty to preserve its actual existence in the world. English Heritage’s Sites of Memory, for example, mark the story of both the Atlantic slave trade and its abolition, including controversial benefactors such as Edward Colston (see Figures 1.1 and 1.2).


[LEFT]: Fig. 1.1 Blue glass sugar bowl inscribed in gilt ‘EAST INDIA SUGAR not made by SLAVES’, Bristol, 1820-30. British Museum.
[RIGHT]: Fig. 1.2 Statue of Edward Colston by John Cassidy, erected in 1895 on Colston Avenue, Bristol.

We must not forget the legacies of those who accumulated vast wealth from the trade any more than we must forget the human beings who were traded and the anti-slavery campaigners. Each has left their own mark on history, for better or worse.[7]

The distinction between what should be preserved and what is best gone (but not forgotten) rests on the reasons why we ought to remember. When Margaret Thatcher unveiled the English Heritage blue plaque for Nancy Astor in 1987 (Figure 1.3), this was intended to honour Astor for being the first woman to take a seat in Parliament. The plaque scheme itself was introduced in 1866 by the (now Royal) Society of Arts with the ambiguously-worded aim of increasing ‘the public estimation for places which have been the abodes of men [sic] who have made England what it is’. Strictly speaking, one may think that Astor’s home should be remembered in this way without believing that she personally deserves any honour.

Fig. 1.3 English Heritage blue plaque for Nancy Astor.

It is impossible to codify the precise correct relation between past atrocities and present duties. There are sound reasons for wishing to preserve the Roman Colosseum, but not the practices related to it. These reasons are largely aesthetic and historical, but are not primarily to do with remembrance. Our duty to preserve Auschwitz, by contrast, has nothing to do with any architectural merit. The line of taste, in matters that we might term ‘atrocity heritage’, is easily crossed however. For example, while we should be doing much more to commemorate victims of rape, Jerzy Bohdan Szumczyk’s life-sized sculpture Komm, Frau (‘Come, woman’) – depicting a Russian soldier raping a heavily pregnant woman – is an extremely inappropriate way of doing so, even if its creator did intend it as a political statement condemning rape.[8] Again, it is important to get right the reasons why it is inappropriate. It is one thing to agree with the Polish journalist Marek Gorlikowski that ‘this type of monument is far from the way to commemorate the victims of rape’ and quite another to agree with the Russian ambassador to Poland Alexander Alexeyev, when he denounces the monument as having ‘defiled the memory of 600,000 Soviet servicemen who gave their lives in the fight for the freedom and the independence of Poland’.[9] This may seem obvious, but it did not stop the Huffington post from claiming that Gorlikowski’s sentiments ‘echoed’ those of Alexeyev.[10] There are no hard and fast rules about what counts as appropriate commemoration any more than there are about what counts as good art. But the fact that there is not one right way of commemorating atrocities does not mean that all attempts are of equal merit.

Some years ago, the white South African philosopher Samantha Vice caused a stir by claiming that she was ashamed of being white.[11] Summarising her initial article, Vice writes that she ‘explored the moral burden that whiteness places on us and was met by a similar outbreak of self-righteous outrage’, suggesting that ‘white people should cultivate humility and silence, given their morally compromised position in the continuing racial and economic injustices of this country’. She continues:

[I]t is appropriate for whites to feel shame at their white identity, given its destructive legacy and the way it continues to shape us. Of course, we did not choose to be born white but that does not stop us benefiting from it still – in ways that are far subtler than merely social and economic. We move easily about a world made in our own image, validating our own values and beliefs and sustaining our own comfort, unimpeded by the kinds of structural and systemic challenges black people face daily. That is something to feel ashamed about.

Vice has been accused of being stupid, neurotic, self-hating, attention-seeking, and blinded by ‘womanly political views’. But her point was that we must sometimes move beyond what we might call the heritage ethics of memory. She writes:

We forget the vast background of institutions, state support and opportunities that made our success possible; we forget that we do not develop in a vacuum or create ourselves ex nihilo. Apartheid’s dubious gift to whites was the chance to live comfortably, securely and with opportunities for creative development and worldly success. Apartheid cushioned whites at the expense of making life very hard for others – and the effects of this injustice are still present … So, however attached whites are to this country – and part of my point is that, whether we admit it or not, we are fundamentally attached to its sad history and legacy – and however much we care for its success, we shouldn’t feel completely comfortable. The refusal to acknowledge one’s luck is a manifestation of the careless complacence and arrogance that make whites feel entitled to these advantages – and convinced that their own efforts alone made their success possible.

Sometimes the sins of our parents should be inherited not only via preservation in memory, but through shame and activism.

Heritage Rights from Feta to Burka

In the opening chapter of his classic 1961 study What Is History?, E.H. Carr rightly noted that not all facts and events are historical. Pope John Paul II’s 1997 visit to Cuba is a historical fact, but my own visit in 2006, alas, is not. We might similarly ask why an object or event forms part of some heritage, be it the world’s, a specific nation’s, or that of some other specified set of people. As with historical facts, such matters are not fixed across time. There was a moment in time when it seemed to some that Oasis might become as central a part of British popular culture as The Beatles, but that moment is long gone (Lowenthal is right in his assertion that we cannot simply equate heritage with history).

Even when we are confident in perceiving something as ‘cultural heritage’, how are we to decide to whom this belongs to? The question seems to imply that some people may have special (though typically not exclusive) ownership rights to it over others. There is an obvious (albeit trivial) sense in which ‘British Heritage’ belongs to the British, but what does this actually translate to pragmatically? Do the British have some kind of special right to eat pork pies and photograph Westminster Abbey? It is one thing to reserve the name ‘Champagne’ for products of a certain geographical region and ‘Feta’ for those of another,[12] but do the French have a special right to champagne and the Eiffel Tower, the Greeks to Feta and the Parthenon? And what about coffee, which we associate more with Italy than the American and African countries which actually grow the beans?

Such questions are comic, in part because all heritage is universal in the sense that we should all be free to access it if possible, if not always for free. It is not always viable for everyone to access everything, or to do so easily and at little or no cost: nobody thinks that the people of Greece have a right to free Feta cheese; by contrast it takes a libertarian like the Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe to deny that there is a universal right to free clean water.[13] So this kind of rights-speech is really a misleading way of talking about access priorities. The criteria here are a mix of the practical and ideological: if only X amount of people can visit a monument a year, should priority not be given to the local community? In some countries locals pay a lower (or no) fare for entrance to sites than other visitors do. These others, or ‘other others’, used to be called tourists, viz. they who tour around. But the word has become pejorative and sites are increasingly opting for the gentler – less discriminatory – term ‘visitors’. But the policy of giving preferential rates to local residents is not always limited to ‘visitor sites’. In Egypt, for example, this policy extends to commodities like hotel rooms. And everywhere we have import taxes. In the case of transportable physical objects the key access issue is that of location, location, location. Unfortunately, questions about access priorities are typically overshadowed by legal and ethical concerns about ownership, as in the case of the Parthenon sculptures.

Cultural heritage rights – be they moral and/or legal – are rarely human rights, but there are exceptions. So, while it is absurd to view the right to have free or affordable access to French cinema as a human right, if there is a right to wear a burka (be it for religious or cultural reasons), this will be a human right. The issue is certainly not one of limited availability. Unlike some moral rights, all human rights ought to be legal rights. Cultural heritage rights, then, do not necessarily deserve legislative support. This will largely depend on their importance. We may wish to give certain groups of people near-absolute legal rights to burkas, and priority access to the pyramids, but no special right whatsoever to, say, caviar.

Where there are rights there are also duties, such as those of preservation, in memory or actuality. These too will be constrained by resources such as space, money, manpower, time, and so on. Mistakes of judgment, here as elsewhere, are inevitable. A salient example is that of the BBC prior to the Heritage Collection initiative. The Heritage Collection gathers radio and television productions, artwork, props, and paraphernalia. These have been largely compiled from personal collections, bequests by former staff, and the BBC Archive Treasure Hunt (a public appeal to recover pre-1980s productions that had been lost) as until then the BBC had a questionable policy of wiping old videotapes for re-use, with no apparent realisation of their historical significance.

Unfortunately, practical issues frequently end up bringing heritage concerns too close for comfort to those of the tourist industry. Tristan Platt has expressed this worry well:

… the funding of Bolivian Worlds by Lufthansa, and of Madagascar, Island of the Ancestors by Air Madagascar (both airlines clearly interested in boosting their tourist bookings to each country), … reminded me of the uncomfortable continuum between ethnography and the travel-brochure … Could I persuade myself that these artefacts were in fact to be perceived as ‘ambassadors’ of their peoples to the English capital of Britain?

This passage serves as a stark reminder of the multiple national and commercial interests which lie behind claims to heritage. Separating these from ethical concerns has become as difficult to manage in practice as it is easy to do in theory. But some degrees of compromise are more acceptable than others. When people like Brabeck-Letmathe make statements such as ‘access to water is not a public right’[14] and shorelines become increasingly open to commercial development, we should consider carefully the increasingly close connection between commerce and heritage. As the heritage industry grows, there is a serious danger that it will purchase anything of value and sell access to it at rates that only the privileged few can afford.


Given the range of questions and complexities surrounding heritage, I am sceptical about the possibility of a unified account of it.[15] Heritage, cultural or otherwise, is not always good. It may be preserved in fundamentally different, indeed contradictory, ways. The range of rights relating to it is by no means a straightforward one. This elucidatory essay has been written with the faith that ‘a repertoire might be more useful than a conviction’.[16] This is not to say that we do not even know what cultural heritage ethics is, but only that exploring these concepts is an integral part of it. I have barely sketched what even a partial conceptual cartography of the area might look like. Nonetheless, I hope to have marked some of the numerous pitfalls which face the bolder theorist.


  1. This essay greatly benefited from discussions with Geoffrey Belcher, Eleni Cubitt, Max de Gaynesford, Alon Lischinsky, and Erasmus Mayr. It was presented in near-final form at the Ethics, Museums and Archaeology workshop, Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), 3-4 April 2014, after which I made some improvements thanks to feedback from Anna Bergqvist, Ivan Gaskell, Erin Kavanagh, and Andreas Pantazatos. Finally, thanks to Candida Lord for careful proofreading which saved me from several embarrassments.
  2. D. Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. x.
  3. S. Peck, ‘Why does a Tory MP think that getting your tits out is a “National Institution”?’, The Telegraph, 10 December 2013, (unless otherwise specified, all links cited in this volume were active on 23 June 2014).
  4. J. Bristow, ‘Page three girls and porn-again feminists’, 22 November 2010,
  5. Lowenthal, 1998, p. 29.
  6. ‘The European Court of Justice forces Google to remove links to some personal information’, The Economist, 17 May 2014, 2239-european-court-justice-forces-google-remove-links-some-personal-information-cut
  7. the-slave-trade-and-abolition/sites-of-memory
  8. A photograph of the statue taken by the artist is available at http://www.openbook
  9. cydencie-w-gdasku&catid=1%3Aaktualnoci&Itemid=5&lang=ru
  10. ‘Polish rape sculpture draws international backlash’, 18 October 2013,
  11. S. Vice, ‘Why my opinions on whiteness touched a nerve’, 2 September 2011,
  12. See, for example: ‘Greece wins exclusive rights to market Feta in Canada’, 18 October 2013,
  13. Nestlé have since changed their official position, though it is difficult not to adopt a cynical stance towards such revisionary ‘clarifications’:
  14. See note 13 above.
  15. Cf. L. Smith, The Uses of Heritage (London: Routledge, 2006), ch. 1.
  16. Adam Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored (London: Faber and Faber, 1993), p. xvi.

From Culture Heritage Ethics: Between Theory and Practice, originally published by Open Book Publishers (2014) under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.