Des nouvelles de l'association ACHS - Religious heritage as a critical issue. Notes from the 2016 ACHS congress

Religious heritage as a critical issue. Notes from the 2016 ACHS congress


Texte de Cyril Isnart
CNRS – Institut d’Ethnologie Méditerranéenne, Européenne et Comparative (Aix Marseille Université-CNRS)

The Association of Critical Heritage Studies is a recently founded assembly of researchers and heritage professionals whose aim is to think through heritage practices, values and consequences as social and political topics. ACHS met in Montreal, Quebec, in June 2016, to hold its third congress. Among other points of interest currently discussed in the conservation and cultural spheres, such as intangible heritage, tourism, war, or the epistemology of heritage studies, the congress gathered a series of panels, roundtables and visits dedicated to religion and heritage. Two principal themes can describe the different approaches to religion in the congress.
Firstly, participants analysed the history of sacred places in secularized times, giving special attention to the management of religious sites, and their relationship with the community. Not surprisingly, two panels of the congress were dedicated to the management and the future of religious buildings, chaired by Luc Noppen, historian of architecture, and especially of the religious architecture of Quebec. As is the case in many Western countries, late 20th century Quebec faced a massive decrease of Catholicism or Protestantism as a shared frame of daily life. Consequently, some religious places are abandoned and converted into libraries, museums, shops, or housing. Architects, historians, and urban management specialists from Quebec have studied this phenomenon, and many heritage associations have carried out safeguarding projects to reveal the artistic, historical and spiritual values of the vanishing traces of the Catholic past. The conference communications described the importance of this phenomenon and displayed a number of impressive examples outside Quebec. They also underlined the opportunities and dangers the conversion of religious spaces can lead to––from enhancing charity to financial abuses. Some other papers presented cases of safeguarding or creating new religious spaces, in which heritage and tourism play a great role. In that case, architects, tourism managers, pilgrimage tour operators, civil authorities and religious communities themselves are involved in the process. After being informed of the improvement plan of the Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal, a Montreal shrine that receives hundreds of thousands of people, some of the participants came to visit the sanctuary. In fact it is a double shrine to the father of the Christ and to Saint Brother André, the founder of a 20th century education and charity local institution. Like many other shrines in the world, the Oratory plays a touristic and religious function in Montreal, and illustrates the philosophical and physical problems heritage uses of religious monuments can create. In sum, the first set of researches dealt with the new fate of religious places, between preservation, transformation and development. It described the relationship devotees, tourists, and people in general have to this kind of heritage, or stressed the weaknesses of conservation policy, when religious communities or architects regret the damage such places are suffering today.
The second theme proposed another perspective on religion and heritage. Two panels, entitled “Religion as heritage: Heritage as religion?” (Eva Löfgren and Ola Wetterberg) and “Religious heritage and religious patrimony: Differences and affordances” (Nathalie Cerezales and Cyril Isnart), gathered case studies to theoretically address the specificity of heritage-making applied to religious places, objects and rituals. On the one hand, presentations acknowledged the secularization of Western societies in which religious goods become part of national heritage. Using the concept of “migration of the holy”––the transfer of the sacred from the religious sphere to the secular (Pomian 1990, Cavanaugh 2011)––the authors showed how the transformation of churches into cultural items adds a new layer to the secularization hypotheses. In that context, descriptions of the attention religious administrators of sacred places pay to the touristic, musical, or heritage uses of their buildings reveal tensions and conflicts in the moral, religious, and financial values at play. They underlined that the liturgical obligations and the preservation requirements can sometime clash, and their opposition can create misunderstandings on what is at stake when a community's wishes conflict with the preservationist's. On the other hand, taking a step further, some papers addressed the overlapping effect between the memory habitus of religious communities and the institutional, bureaucratic, and lay guidelines and values of patrimony administration. What happens when some conservation practices of the ecclesial hierarchy––such as the Commission for Cultural Goods of the Catholic Church, or the archives of a local community––meet the civil and lay administration of heritage management? What about the “migration of the holy” interpretation when we speak about sacred things displayed in a religious context, like reliquaries in the treasuries of cathedrals, which any visitor may see? Are the categories used to describe heritage practices and used in heritage administration still efficient to understand such situations?
The questions raised during the congress of Montreal in fact extend the insights anthropologists and historians have defended on the blurred frontier between tourists and pilgrims in Christian societies (Badone and Roseman 2004). They allow us to critically rethink the values and routes that frame the Western relationship to religious heritage. Yet, as a worldwide spread idea, the all heritage domain is now under the fire of comparison (Winter 2012), but the paths to explore other religious traditions and their heritagisation have only just opened and need to be further travelled.

Badone, Ellen, and Roseman, Sharon R., ed. 2004. Intersecting journeys. The anthropology of pilgrimage and tourism. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Cavanaugh, W. T. 2011. Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans.
Pomian, K. 1990. Collectors and curiosities: Paris and Venice. 1500-1800. Cambridge: Polity.
Winter, T. 2012. “Beyond Eurocentrism? Heritage conservation and the politics of difference.”, International Journal of Heritage Studies 20 (2): 123-137, DOI:10.1080/13527258.2012.736403