Heritage Preservation as a Public Duty: The Abbé Grégoire and the Origins of an Idea

Public responsibility for the conservation of artifacts of historic or aesthetic value is now acknowledged everywhere. One way or another the state will ensure preservation of a Stonehenge or a Grand Canyon as well as a great many lesser cultural icons. We have names for such things – “heritage” and “cultural property” are two of them; “patrimony” is a European counterpart – but these words have no very specific meaning. Many, but by no means all, of the objects we feel constrained to protect are old. They include human artifacts as well as natural objects or places. Though it is customary to say that no one has a right to destroy those things comprising our heritage, many such items, especially works of art, are held and enjoyed as ordinary private goods without public access or regulation of any kind.

This inconsistency illustrates the paradox of historical preservation. As uncontroversial as heritage preservation may appear when one thinks of historic monuments and artistic masterworks, the idea of an officially designated culture seems greatly at odds with modem sensibilities. The very idea of government involving itself in cultural life raises the unwelcome specter of censorship on one side and official propaganda on the other. In addition, there is the more general question of cultural policy as a tool of a paternalistic state that aspires to make its citizens ,good, a notion that has lost all cachet in our time. In short, state cultural policies appear to be out of harmony with modem ideas about the role of government. Nonetheless they flourish. Obviously there is some very strong attraction to the idea of a common heritage: a people and a community bound together in some shared enterprise with shared values.