The Korea Herald


[Ken Taylor] Reshaping the discourse on heritage

By Korea Herald

Published : May 13, 2024 - 05:31

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The focus of the proposal by Korea‘s Cultural Heritage Administration to shift the emphasis of the Korean system on perceptions of heritage is a landmark decision.

Notably, it reflects international scholarly discourse and professional best practice thinking in the field of cultural heritage and natural heritage management in that over the last thirty years or so, the concept of heritage, its management processes and the very role it plays in the social arena have gone through significant changes. The original idea of heritage was largely based on the historic monument as the physical evidence of a past that needed, for reasons ranging from its artistic values to its role in the development of local and national identities, to be preserved and valued.

In contrast, today, what we understand as cultural heritage has expanded to include a greater variety of heritage types, such as urban spaces, landscapes, infrastructures, places of memory and natural heritage. As the interest for heritage has grown internationally, an important reflection has taken place on the processes of heritage identification, conservation, management and economic use in different cultural contexts.

The focus has gradually shifted from the material and physical dimension of heritage to its value systems and significance: today, the non-physical dimension of heritage has acquired a much greater importance, to the point of questioning the standard partition between tangible and intangible heritage.

Typical of a shifting focus are, for example, the clan villages of Korea and their landscape setting resulting from ongoing management over time by inhabitants reflecting their shared community and social values and interpretation of landscape values and intangible associations; widening interest in indigenous aspects of heritage and customary knowledge reflected in World Heritage nominations such as the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape in Australia; an understanding that a separation between culture and nature produces tension between the Western notion of nature as a scientific entity that can be quantitatively assessed and the predominantly Eastern notion that nature is a cultural construct.

It is through the lens of these major international changes in heritage thinking and practice that the potential changes in Korean practice proposals should be seen. Why is this important? It is because cultural heritage, for example, is about people, not things. It drives ideas of nationalism, pride, conflict, people’s sense of place, interest in social history, and, not least, the idea that heritage is not predominantly about ancient monuments and sites. Equally, it is about the here and now and the interaction between people and places no matter how ordinary or seemingly mundane. In this context, heritage engages profoundly with intangible aspects of peoples’ relationships with places and objects.

One particular aspect for future consideration should be urban conservation. Today, for the first time in human history, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. According to UN-Habitat, shortly, 5 billion people will live in cities. There is a need to think of cities not just as collections of buildings but understand that cities, or parts of cities, are an outcome of natural, cultural and socioeconomic processes that construct them spatially, temporally and experientially. In other words, urban conservation should understand the rituals and values that people bring to the city.

The proposed Korea Heritage Service format makes eminent sense and aligns with international best practice where cultural and natural heritage are administered through one agency. An example is UNESCO World Heritage Center with its mission to encourage international cooperation in the conservation of the world‘s cultural and natural heritage through nature conservation and conservation of cultural properties. Underpinning these functions is a comprehensive set of Operational Guidelines the aim of which is to facilitate the implementation of the World Heritage Convention for properties that are considered to have Outstanding Universal Value.

For a property to meet this standard of value it must satisfy at least one of 10 criteria. The first six criteria apply to cultural heritage places; the other four apply to natural heritage places. At other levels such as national, state/provincial, and local. the term significance is used for places regarded as having importance. For example, in Australia, there are nine criteria from which it can be recommended a place is significant (of value) to the nation. A place must meet one or more of these criteria. A similar technique of applying criteria is used for places of significance for example at state (provincial) and local levels. Critical at all levels is the concept of value that people assign to places. Such a modus operandi works on the idea of the importance that a place -- cultural and/or natural -- has for people and the understanding that one level is neither more nor less important than another.

At the national level, the Korea Heritage Service with its aim of promoting enjoyment of national heritage through cooperation between the Cultural Heritage Committee, the Cultural Heritage Administration and 12 sub-committees will facilitate understanding of Korean heritage nationally and internationally. It also offers a link between theory and practice that will promote, inter alia, international exchanges. It will render the process of deciding which places are to be conserved clear and determinable on the understanding that conservation is an overall process of looking after places that are identified as having value for people. It will facilitate stating not just what is important, but why places are important.

Ken Taylor

Ken Taylor is an honorary professor at the Centre for Heritage & Museum Studies at the Australian National University and an emeritus professor of landscape architecture at the University of Canberra. The views expressed here are the writer's own. -- Ed.