Heritage tends to be associated with ‘things’: buildings, objects, memorials. To be acknowledged as heritage, things must be shown, seen, engaged with: heritage needs to be ‘performed.’ The performative dimension has gained currency across the social sciences and the humanities (Thrift 2000) and has given important impulses to the study and the practice of heritage. This dimension highlights creativity, processuality, affect and agency in heritage-making. In the words of a prominent advocate of critical heritage studies, ‘heritage is a multilayered performance – be this a performance of visiting, managing, interpretation or conservation – that embodies acts of remembrance and commemoration while negotiating and constructing a sense of place, belonging and understanding in the present’ (Smith 2006, 2).

The performative turn challenges traditional understandings of heritage as a symbolic representation of a pre-existing ‘authentic’ past, an ‘exhibition of itself’ (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2005, 1). It directs attention to the cultural and social process of ‘doing heritage,’ where heritage is actively produced through practices. Besides collecting, classifying, conserving, displaying, visiting and forms of audience engagement, a performative reading includes ‘intangible heritage,’ such as performed acts of remembering in popular culture and everyday life, as well as in the arts and the media.

In everyday parlance, a performance is a staged act, a display of skills directed at an audience. Drawing on Erving Goffman’s (1959) dramaturgical reading of social behaviour, performance theory extends this concept from the theatre to life in its entirety, because ‘every social activity can be understood as a showing of a doing’ (Schechner 2013, 168): a public presentation of the self and an act of meaning-making. As showing requires spectators, heritage performances rely on audiences as active co-creators. A village fete, where people dress up, manage stalls, play music, consume and watch each other in the process, is as much a site of heritage performance as a museum where the beer glass or the dirndl are exhibited and seen, or a medieval re-enactment, or a workshop where artists work with participants around archival objects. As ‘a mode of cultural production that has recourse to the past and produces something new,’ heritage is continuously produced and reproduced by living persons, ‘their knowledge, practices, artifacts, social worlds, and life spaces’ (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2005, 1).

As powerful elements in the dynamics of cultural hegemony and a form of social action, heritage performances affect present realities. The embodied language of heritage is performative in that it ‘enacts or produces that which it names’ (Butler 1993, 23). Heritage performances connect personal and collective experiences to wider social discourses. The annual Notting Hill Carnival in London may serve as an example for the performativity of heritage. As one of the largest European street festivals, it features steel bands, soundsystems, and a parade. The carnival was created by the West-Indian community in response to racial tensions, and has been held every year since 1966 as an affirmation of the Black Atlantic Diaspora in convergence with London’s many immigrant communities. The carnival expresses and produces a heritage that remains contentious. Media reports celebrate it not least as a boost to tourism, but also warn of riots as police units are deployed and administrative regulation sets in. Year after year, the carnival points to a reality of problematic race and class relations, while optimistically and defiantly embodying the claim to overcome them in a flamboyant display of Caribbean culture, enacted in a setting of metropolitan pluri-culturalism.



Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. London: Routledge.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. 2005. “From Ethnology to Heritage: The Role of the Museum”. In SIEF Conference Proceedings, Marseille 2004: Among Others Encounters and Conflicts in European and Mediterranean Societies, edited by Musée National des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerrané, 73-80. Accessed March 25, 2018. https://www.siefhome.org/downloads/publications/elibrary/document-cd.pdf

Schechner, Richard and Sara Brady. 2013. Performance Studies: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

Smith, Laurajane. 2006. Uses of Heritage. London: Routledge.

Thrift, Nigel. 2000. “Afterwords.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 18: 213-255.