How Can We Discuss Heritage Without Defining It?

* The ideas presented in the essay are the result of half-year discussions. Special thanks to Stepan Zakharkevich, Victor Martinovich and Angela Starovoytova who were the first ones not afraid to go with me into the unknown. The ideas were provoked to be put into text at the summer session of Nordic Summer University (2023) by investigating liminal spaces in both cultural heritage and feminist philosophy. It would not have been possible without Elena Bogdanova, Nicole des Bouvrie, and Carol Stampone.  

In 2011, the Special Rapporteur Farida Shaheed submitted a report to the Human Rights Council emphasising the importance of cultural heritage not only in itself but also in the usage of it for individuals and communities, in terms of both their identity and development processes. The human rights issues related to cultural heritage are to be found, inter alia, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These rights include the right to self-determination, the right to take part in cultural life; the cultural rights of persons belonging to minorities; the right to education; freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of religion and belief, as well as the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples must also be mentioned because it recognises the rights of Indigenous peoples, particularly “the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage” (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 22).


The current World Heritage Convention has “communities” as one of the objectives. However, this idea stumbles across the core of the Convention — defining the “outstanding universal value” which is supposed to be globally universal for everyone in the world. No matter how captivating and inclusive it may sound, the backbone of cultural heritage is the Authorised Heritage Discourse (AHD) which was first introduced by Laurajane Smith in 2006. It maps out the authority of expertise and care (which belong to “experts”) and reveals cultural heritage as a tool for building a national idea (29–30). In addition, plenty of works on heritage in the context of minorities and marginalised people situate them as “beneficiaries”, creating an “outsider” perspective on heritage-making actions (Ashley and Frank 501). 


In 2022, I created a 3-year study program at Nordic Summer University bursting with curiosity on alternative understandings of cultural heritage. I faced a problem — discussion about heritage strictly happens on two levels: AHD or locally driven alternatives/critical approaches. On the one hand, the scholars and experts are trying to preserve and save the historical and cultural objects, on the other — the voices of the systematically excluded groups whose heritage has never been protected or even been represented within the authorised discourse are trying to claim their right for heritage. It is always a situation of “either-or”. Two competitive sides of the same objects, memories, and people. The worst part of it — neither of the discourses is suitable for my career plans because of their exclusiveness and radicality. What is the way of working with heritage and debating around it without claiming one as “the right side” and others as “wrong”? How to create a space for both “experts” of the field to use the potential of specific knowledge and “locals” to meet their needs about a certain place? (Also, how to shift the perspective of questioning because the previous sentence created a dichotomy as if only “experts” and “locals” exist even though there are many more people to participate in?)


Strictly speaking, with this essay, I attempt to approach a gigantic question: “How could heritage be researched and discussed without defining it and without losing the common ground?” 


How to build a resourceful dialogue between different people in terms of perceiving each other through desires, worries, and lives first than through roles? All in all, if the final goal is to make the world a better place, the disagreement lies in the area of tools, responsibilities, and labels. 


Serenity and unknown


“What does it mean to understand anything, when any claim on knowledge would destroy the possibility of truth and is therefore to be avoided? Whenever we say or think or feel, whenever something is, it puts forward a claim of being, ending endless amounts of possibilities” (des Bouvrie 342).


Every time I talk to people who are not very familiar with the field of heritage, I receive the question “What is heritage?” The next question is “Is it something related to family traditions?” At first, it was pretty annoying. Everyone faces issues related to culture, memory, objects, and their inheritance on different levels — they choose where to travel, discuss how to renovate the street they live on, or actually think of how to maintain the family traditions. Every type of explanation regarding what heritage is (I even started experimenting with the answers) ended with, “Ahh, culture/history/art/museums/city/national parks/ *insert any other word, and it would make sense in describing heritage* ”. One person even keeps asking me about ecological issues as if “ecology” and “heritage” are the same. Gazing more into the question itself, I found a different layer of the fact that everyone knows what heritage is in their understanding and wording but rarely names it as such (except people who are into debating about it). 


In the article “Philosophical Compassion and Active Hesitation” Nicole des Bouvrie suggests active hesitation as a way out of pigeonholing everything we talk, think, and write about. “The hesitation does not mean that we hesitate to call something by its name. The hesitation lies in the fact that we don’t limit something to the name we have given something, not limit anything to the judgement I’ve passed onto it due to my upbringing, experiences, education, etc” (353).


The word “heritage” still allows for the aura of the unknown, the concept in its present name appeared only after World War II. Such novelty could stand for lack of knowledge, meaning a lack of tools to solve the problems. The other side of the coin is a lack of established wordings which means a lack of simplifications, categorisations, and odds for leaving the space for yet unknown, and impossible future, and not claiming the truth immediately (as it is in the situation when one is brave enough to ask “What is heritage?” and ready to receive any answer). But in the context of all of the existing concepts that induce people into “either-or” situations, these lucky moments of serenity seem to be almost unreal and severely fragile. 




The concept of cultural heritage in its current widely used understanding serves to build a national idea in the end (Smith 30). By saying “national”, I hardly imagine the narrative being open for everyone who feels belonging to a specific area of thoughts or/and physical actions. Two years ago, I changed my country of living. Could I be already included in the “national” discussions of the new country or I am “not enough local yet ”? Could I express my opinions about the heritage of the country of my origin and be accepted or I am “already not enough local” for that? What are the criteria for identifying one as belonging to a specific nation? But again, these questions complement the authorised perspective on heritage; the answers lay in between formal decisions of experts and official regulations. 


Trying to formulate questions beyond that, I would ask “What does cultural heritage look like when aiming at leaving us being with our differences in a space with lots of possible options of coexistence where “being together or separately” is a range of possibilities rather than an “either-or” choice?” or “What kind of relations do we have with each other if we aim at not claiming things with only one name?” 


In the work “Integration and Multiculturalism: Ways towards Social Solidarity” (Berry), I found two useful points for our discussion:

  1. There is no same way of acculturation for everyone even if people have similar “starting points”. So many more differences appear noticeable when you look at the details that have an impact on a person’s life, for example, differences in character and family relations. Then, if we cannot simplify everyone’s experience, how shall we research it?
  2. Berry answers with a visualised spectrum of “the ways in which individuals categorise, label themselves”. He implies that there are radical sides when integration, assimilation, separation, and marginalisation happen to a person but by making it a spectrum, he saves the space for practices in-between which most people will align because no one is an ideal example of one’s theory. And this ‘in-betweenness” was proved in further investigations (Chumakov 59). 


Concepts of philosophical compassion, or active hesitation, suggest that there is a possibility to take “the messiness of life, being opposites at the same time, being more than one definition, more than one name you give yourself and that is given to you” (des Bouvrie 351) and keep it as the foundation for the process of non-critical thinking. Active hesitation reserves the space for not limiting something to its one accepted meaning or one’s experiences. In its turn, “compassion does not require understanding the other, in a sense of definite knowing of what is going on with the other person. I can show compassion without pretending to know, without presupposing that I can even understand what is going on with the other person” (des Bouvrie 354). 


To sum things up, how can we discuss heritage without defining it? 


This essay suggests several options (which go along with the conclusions from “Philosophical Compassion and Active Hesitation”):

  1. Not defining does not mean losing the meaning. We could work with everything that is related to heritage and look at the connections instead of the objects themselves. It would take time and courage to stay with the situation as it is without claiming anything. It might be scary to face the unknown, but we cannot name everything in its diversity either. Understanding relationality might open up new understandings beyond the words and ideas we already have for the field. Or might leave us with no result. Nevertheless, the absence of the result is also something to work with. 
  2. Words are not enough to explain everything we do, know, and wish to say. Alternative understandings may lay beyond the traditional ways of expression.Visualising, mapping, and thinking through the body itself, and involving emotions and non-humans may open up something very special that later might not even find the proper words to be “translated”. 


My favourite part of cultural heritage is that heritage can be anything that people pay enough attention to. I do not have high hopes that the development of the field will have a completely new approach because the rails are hard to rebuild. But with this text I want to capture the state of serenity, flexibility and the unknown of the field that I hope will have its place in future discussions and practices. 




Ashley, Susan, and Frank Sybille. Introduction: Heritage-Outside-In. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2016,   


Berry, John. Integration and Multiculturalism: Ways towards Social Solidarity. Papers on Social Representations, 2011,


Chumakov, Vladimir. Socio-cultural integration and acculturation strategies of forced migrants from Belarus after the 2020 election campaign: a case of Poland and Lithuania. 2022. 


General comment No. 21. Right of everyone to take part in cultural life (art. 15, para. 1 (a), of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), E/C.12/GC/21, in particular paras. 49(d) and 50. 2009,


des Bouvrie, Nicole. Philosophical Compassion and Active Hesitation. Södertörn University, 2023,


Shaheed, Farida. Report of the independent expert in the field of cultural rights (A/HRC/17/38). United Nations, 2011,


Smith, Laurajane.Uses of Heritage. Routledge, 2006,


Study Circle 1: “Place of Heritage in Interdisciplinarity”. Nordic Summer University, 2022–2025,


UNESCO World Heritage Centre. “The World Heritage Convention”. 1972,


United Nations. United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 2007,


United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 1948,