One of my favourite film scenes of all time, and one in which I believe somehow inspired me to a career in academia, is from very early in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The scene involves Dr. Jones explaining the Ark of the Covenant to two government officials (and providing exposition for the rest of the audience). A bit of biblical history, a bit of archaeology, a bit of drama, a bit of folklore, and a whole lot of fiction – all explained in a beautiful Ivy-League classroom – ends up providing a great deal of urgency and gravitas to Indiana’s adventure.
Of course, teaching and research rarely leads to such excitement and drama, and few of us (myself included) are as charismatic (or, frankly, as dashing) as Dr. Jones. That said, when the light, metaphorically, turns on, I feel a little like I inhabit something of the academic world I still romanticize. Still, archaeology is a sexy topic (beyond Dr. Jones in his three-piece tweed suit). It is uncovering lost civilizations, finding cool things like skeletons and treasures, stuff like that. The reality of archeology is, as we know, brutal, underpaid, and often very unsexy – but there’s a romance to the discipline that makes stories like Raiders so appealing.
Heritage is often not sexy. Heritage is bad history, or something your grandma likes, or is boring, or is reactionary, or is old buildings. Of course, heritage can sort of be all of these things. Heritage, as a concept, is very difficult to categorize, to pin down, and to differentiate from other fields that deal with the past – like history or archaeology. Explaining that heritage is “the present use of the past” doesn’t often clarify things for students, I find, and in fact makes it an even more confusing concept. Thus, it is often something that can be a challenge to convey in the classroom.
Sport and other popular cultures can, I find, be a good hook for students to grasp how heritage works and why it is worthy of study. Unlike more remote forms of heritage, sport is something immediate, often it’s relatable, it is frequently shared or collective, and it’s contemporary use – particularly in terms of promotion and commodification – can be easily demonstrated and understood. In both the sport tourism and heritage tourism classes I teach, I use sport heritage as a way of illuminating concepts and topics like authenticity, urban redevelopment, and event management to name but a few. It is also, I find, a good way of explaining the two major paradigms in heritage studies: heritage as conservation and heritage as discourse. Students may not see sport sites – like stadiums – as necessarily worthy of protection, but when they explore the meanings they associate with these sites they begin to understand why heritage isn’t just a bunch of old buildings and artefacts.
Now, I will admit, it’s a little easier to use sport heritage in places like Clemson which is rather sports-obsessed, and the fact that so much of US culture is associated with sport makes it a relatively relatable concept domestically. But even when dealing with international audiences, many of whom have little interest in sport, I have found that sport can be a powerful vehicle for illuminating broader heritage concepts. It also helps to clarify that heritage is dynamic, and that what is considered heritage – and by whom – is constantly in flux.
At the end of the day, while there are sexy aspects to heritage studies – particularly when they involve the protection of ancient monuments – explaining the actual concept of heritage is unlikely to ever reach the romance of Dr. Jones’ lost ark (The great irony, of course, is that one of the most commonly used examples of the politics of heritage involves the Nazi’s use of public archaeology, but I digress). However, sport can, I believe, be one of the ways in which heritage can be explained and be relatable to a general audience.