David Lowenthal obituary
Scholar who established heritage studies as an academic discipline in its own right
In 2017 the historian and geographer David Lowenthal, who has died aged 95, gave a lecture at University College London in which he insisted: “Heritage is not history: heritage is what people make of their history to make themselves feel good.” He contrasted the way that individual nations and tribes imagine their own heritage with the conception recently promoted by international organisations, notably Unesco, that heritage must be universal, for the good of all.
A case in point is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built on a site said to cover locations important around the time of Jesus’s death. Six Orthodox and Catholic Christian denominations own different parts of the church, while two Muslim families look after its entrance. Solutions to the resulting clashes of responsibility are very much needed, just as with other sacred sites in the city.
American-born but British by inclination, David became professor of geography at UCL in 1972, retiring as emeritus professor in 1986. Apart from Unesco, the heritage agencies he advised included the World Monuments Fund, English Heritage, the US National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Trust of Australia. Never afraid of controversy, he presented cogent opinions on a host of topics, such as the Elgin Marbles, the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford and the role of the Barclay twins on the island of Sark.
He helped make heritage studies a discipline in its own right: the lecture he gave last year was the first in an annual series for UCL’s recently founded Centre for Critical Heritage Studies. In doing so, he pointed to the way history seeks to identify the truth while heritage exaggerates and omits, invents and forgets in order to fabricate prejudiced pride in the past. Heritage is fashioned to “attest our identity and affirm our worth”, an argument he developed further in The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1997).