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13.30  The Habitus of Heritage: Class, Memory and Visitor Position-Taking

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13:30, Saturday 4 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

This paper will explore what Bourdieu’s framework of habitus, field and symbolic capital can offer museum and heritage visitor studies. Rather than focusing on his well-known critique of high-cultural taste for art in museums, it will discuss displays of “ordinary” and social heritage—of occupations, crafts, places, communities. Habitus suggests that visitors to such heritage sites are involved in making value judgements, not of aesthetic value but of the social identities symbolized in the display. In particular, it directs analytic attention to the active positions that visitors take up during their visit. Many “active audience” visitor studies focus on visitors' actions as responses to or decodings of exhibitions, suggesting these have an immediate intelligibility; albeit governed by the visitor's prior “identity.” 

Instead, the paper will suggest seeing the visit as a moment in a person’s life, where a relationship is constructed between an individual biography, a social field that assigns differential values to classed identities, and the particular set of symbols encountered in the visit. It will be suggested that these are appropriated as symbolic “tokens” in accordance with individuals’ practical relation to the world that they inhabit. Past experience, memory and class become crucial here, as these illuminate the subjective stances visitors adopt to the symbols on display. These involve important affective and non-ideational dimensions. The paper will draw on data from prior visitor research conducted by the author to illustrate the points made. The aim is to show how visiting is a social practice that mobilizes symbolic dimensions of memory and residues of classed experience. It is one that can be profitably illuminated by exploring visitors'  habitus rather than examining exhibit-visitor interactions in isolation.

Bella Dicks


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