As a species, we crave connection. Not just in the now, but as part of a wider story that reaches back through time and place, that tethers us to families, communities and a moment in history. Our cultural references are an essential part of the present we live in and the future we’ll build. We talk of zeitgeist as the ‘spirit of the age’. Each expression of a time encapsulates the current thinking, influences, inspirations, and society’s understanding of the world. They’re the visual clues, references and footnotes.
The bigger picture stuff are the cultural landmarks. Celebrated artistic expressions that many of us know: the Mona Lisa, the Great Pyramid of Giza, Michelangelo’s David, Shakespeare, the Arc de Triomphe and, of course, the Beatles. They’re part of our national consciousness, a roadmap of our cultural and social history. So important is our right to enjoy the arts and participate in the cultural life of our community that it’s included in the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But what about the personal things that shape our understanding of ourselves and our world. A family’s ancestral artifacts speak volumes about who they are. Their relationship to them is also interesting. Do you see heritage as a kind of dead past, as memorabilia – distanced from the present through nostalgia? Or is it part of everyday life? Fluid, constantly being added to and changing?
The latter is a dynamic, continually developing relationship that involves us actually using the heirlooms handed down to us. Instead of creating museums, we’re incorporating the past, adding more layers and more dents to the table. The quilt gets patched up, the jewelry worn. It makes a refreshing change from a society obsessed with newness, as well as one veering more into a digital world where photographs rarely make it into albums and letters don’t get written.
The heirlooms we inherit are therefore even more precious. Their value defined by the stories they tell. Family paintings, a writing desk, inscribed silverware, journals, a set of china. Pieces that may have travelled long distances, were received as wedding gifts or commissioned to celebrate an event. The wear and tear evidence of a life well-lived. Their ownership a privilege. We’re custodians of our own cultural heritage. What will you pass on to the next generation?