Researching heritage and identity: What does that mean?


How are cultural heritage and identity linked? The researchers at the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Center for Global Heritage and Development provide insight. One of the centre's three core research themes is 'Heritage and Identity', which is approached from a multidisciplinary perspective.

dr Erik de Maaker

Dr Erik de Maaker of Leiden University is a researcher at the Centre for Global Heritage and Development, within the research direction "Heritage and Identity".  De Maker elaborates: "The research theme 'Heritage and Identity' focuses on the way in which people shape stories about their origin. Such stories and the material and intangible heritage associated with them, are increasingly playing a global role in how people position themselves in relation to each other and their environment and the rights they derive from it. This theme also reflects on how heritage can contribute to the quality of life and sustainable development."

   Interpretations of heritage can provide a basis for social exclusion, but also for societal inclusion. 

The role of heritage: who is it for, and for what purpose?

The Centre for Global Heritage and Development's research focuses on shared heritage, on how heritage can connect people with places, objects, expressions, and, with each other. De Maker: "Interpretations of heritage provide grounds for societal exclusion, but also for social inclusion. We ask questions such as: What is considered heritage, by whom and for what kind of purposes?”

These research questions are answered on the basis of multidisciplinary scientific research by the archaeologists, anthropologists, urban planners, (art) historians and museologists working together at the Centre for Global Heritage and Development, a collaboration between Leiden University, TU Delft and Erasmus University Rotterdam. Find out more.


Prof. Pieter ter Keurs is the scientific director of this centre. He explains the complex role of heritage in relation to the identity of groups of people and why the centre is investigating this: "The Centre for Global Heritage and Development works within the complex and dynamic field of heritage and society. There is a lot to be done - there are many exciting issues at stake. Heritage can provide 'group feeling' and stability because it provides people with a sense of recognition, a familiar environment.

If you associate with a particular heritage, you get that particular identity too.  This sense of belonging and familiarity can manifest constructively or destructively. For example, when the UNESCO declares something with World Heritage status, the local community may say "Don't interfere with this, this is our heritage because we live and work here." Read the complete interview with Prof Pieter ter Keurs.


Identity under construction: the political aspect of heritage

dr Eliza Steinbock

'The presentation of heritage can also be ex- or inclusive', notes Dr. Eliza Steinbock, who works on the Critical Visitor-project of the Centre for Global Heritage and Development.

Dr. Steinbock: ‘In the Critical Visitor project, we see heritage and identity as dynamic practices: heritage-making and identity-making. Heritage is political and is created by people from within their own position, knowledge and context. Heritage, identity and culture are not fixed phenomena, but continuous processes that give substance to- and are completed by identity.'

'Identity is also always in motion and under construction, in relation to heritage. We also use this understanding to self-reflect by continuing to critically examine our own dynamics as a research group.’

    Heritage, identity and culture are not fixed phenomena, but continuous processes that contribute to- and are shaped by- identity. "

Inclusion is not due to a lack of differences

What could this mean for certain communities within Dutch society, such as LGBTQ+, or people with a migration background? Steinbock: 'Heritage is often used to achieve inclusion with one specific group in mind, such as making heritage inclusive for the LGBTI + community, or people with a migration background. We want to achieve inclusivity that puts emphasis on the versatility of identity.'

'We realize that inclusivity is not the lack of difference. The American poet Audre Lorde wrote, "differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation and confusion".

'The Critical Visitor project offers a platform to think about an inclusive method that maintains polyphony and visibility of specific groups. We need critical visitor to heritage to start changing how we look at history, heritage, and art.' 


European Heritage Award for Centre for Global Heritage and Development

The Centre for Global Heritage and Development's research area focuses on local as well as international heritage. In addition to the research theme 'Heritage and Identity', the centre also looks at 'Heritage & Environment' and 'Heritage under threat'. For the last theme, the centre recently won the European Heritage Award for efforts towards protecting threatened Syrian heritage. More info



More information:
LDE Centre for Global Heritage and Development

Next article