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10.00  History as Heritage: New Understandings of the Relationship between the State, “Official History” and Society in Mexico through Museum Visitor Research

According to the University of Gothenburg, heritage can be understood as “the reworking of the past in the present.” Under these terms, history—broadly understood as the way societies interpret the past—is itself a form of heritage. History as heritage has been widely studied in the Mexican context but generally with a top-down approach that is more or less as follows: the State imposes, through different strategies and media, an “official history” that dominates all aspects of public life. During the late 1970s and the 1980s, new readings of heritage, heavily influenced by anthropological theory, started to critique and question this imposition, and advocated for the power and role of communities in forging heritage. Thus, the heritage debate in Mexico seems to have been mostly reduced to an issue of imposition or rebellion/contestation against the state and its versions of “official history.” The particular Mexican socio-political conditions of the twentieth century partly explain the path that theoretical debates on heritage have taken in this country: unlike any other Latin American country, Mexico was governed for almost sixty years by the same party—the Institutionalized Revolution Party, or PRI. This phenomenon, which can be called a one-party dictatorship, has indeed generated a particular dynamic of heritage study, creation, interpretation, and use in Mexico. In the 2000s, however, a few studies have started to address heritage with a less binary view, and it is from this “third” approach that I will address a particular topic: the dialogical way in which heritage shapes and is shaped by the state. This links to the general topic of the conference, in that I am interested both in how heritage affects and is affected by reality. I will argue that new understandings of the relationship between heritage, the state, and society can be achieved though the use of alternative theories and methodologies. By drawing on the concepts of historical culture, historical consciousness, and ethno-symbolism, paired with qualitative sociological research, this paper will argue that: 

1) many of the studies about heritage produced in Mexico are not based on empirical or social research, and thus lack the understanding of how heritage is actually being used, interpreted, and conceived by society; 

2) by analyzing adult visitors’ comments in two case study museums in Mexico City, it is possible to see the contested, varied, and complex ways in which visitors relate to the past and understand heritage;

3) it is necessary to have a more historicized and detailed understanding of how the State operates on a daily basis, and how this changes through time;

4) therefore, the relationship between the state, heritage, and society is not necessarily one of imposition or rebellion/contestation, but one of mutual impact, whereby the state shapes and is equally shaped by heritage and society. 

Thus, this paper will include a diversity of disciplinary theories and methodologies to achieve a deeper critical engagement with heritage research.

University of Leicester graduate
History | Museums | Research & Practice