What can we learn about heritage from word frequencies?

The “heritage turn” has been noted by many scholars, and this simple Google NGram tracking the frequency of the terms “archaeology”, “heritage”, and “cultural heritage” from 1850-2007 demonstrates the rising use of heritage and, to a lesser extent, cultural heritage. Interestingly, a search for “critical cultural heritage” produced no results.

Among the interesting issues this simple word use trend suggests is the relative infrequency of “cultural heritage” in contrast to the term “archaeology” which has a much older, but more disciplinary specific connotation. Increasingly interdisciplinary connections within the cultural heritage profession being formed among archaeologists, archivists, educators, preservationists, historians, anthropologists, and geographers, as well as the various staff of governmental, non-profit, and or cultural organizations and agencies. These heritage professionals are producing important scholarship, as is evident in journals such as Heritage and Society and International Journal of Heritage Studies that claim the common ground of heritage. In spite of the growing prominence of this iterdisciplinary, innovative work, cultural heritage is still a minority shareholder, at least in a linguistic sense within the Google Books universe.

The trend line also raises questions about the branding or public recognition of the emerging heritage field. When establishing the Cultural Heritage Research Center, one of the biggest hurdles was communicating what cultural heritage is. University administrators and potential funders know what archaeology is, but were only vaguely familiar with cultural heritage. And the premise articulated by Rodney Harrison, Laurajane Smith, and other leading figures in critical cultural heritage only further complicates the branding challenge. Because critical heritage studies recognizes that heritage is itself a construct that can be used to understand historical and material expressions of social difference and exercises of power, it is a powerful and important analytical lens. But for the heritage studies, an emerging field of heritage that has yet to achieve visibility in popular discourse, deconstruction seems to undermine the legitimacy of the enterprise.

Finally, the trend lines suggest that there is much work to be done in about the “value of heritage” in the basic literacy of communities. What is heritage? What is cultural heritage? Who cares and why? Digital humanities, and particularly text analysis tools that can mine massive numbers of documents, seem useful for beginning to explore these questions.

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