Heritage and the Cultural Construction of the Real

Across the world, and also in the Netherlands, cultural heritage is in high demand as a resource for socio-cultural identities. The study of heritage formations leads right into the heart of competing and contested politics and aesthetics of world-making in pluralistic societies.

Cultural heritage is the outcome of a particular, authorized way of mobilizing the past. It is not given, but constantly in the making: a construction subject to dynamic processes of (re)inventing culture within particular social formations and bound to particular forms of mediation. 

And yet, the appeal of cultural heritage rests on its denial of being a mere fabrication. To be persuasive, heritage formations need an aura of authenticity. Thriving on the promise to provide an essential ground to social-cultural identities, they need to be perceived as real. How to grasp the politics and aesthetics of heritage formations in pluralistic societies? How to assess the fundamental paradox that heritage by definition claims to transport essences from the past to the present, and yet is necessarily constructed? These and other questions are central in the volume ‘Sense and Essence. Heritage and the Cultural Construction of the Real’ (ed. B. Meyer and M. van der Port, Berghahn 2018).

The aim of this program is to present the key ideas of the book with some of its authors, focusing on case studies in Ghana and the Netherlands. There will be short presentations by some of the contributors, and a discussion of the book’s main themes by Wayne Modest.

As an introduction, some parts of the book are available here.

About the speakers

Markus Balkenhol is a social anthropologist working on issues of colonialism, race, citizenship, cultural heritage, and religion. His PhD thesis “Tracing Slavery. An Ethnography of Diaspora, Affect, and Cultural Heritage in Amsterdam” (2014) deals with different forms of cultural memory of slavery in Amsterdam Zuidoost. He is a researcher at the Meertens Institute.

Marleen de Witte (PhD cultural anthropology, 2008) has published widely on African Pentecostalism, African Traditional Religion, religion and media, globalization, the senses and the body, cultural heritage, popular culture, funerals, urban Africa (in particular Ghana) and Afro-Europe (in particular the Netherlands). Currently she is a fellow at the NIAS.

Birgit Meyer is professor religious studies at the Utrecht University. Trained as a cultural anthropologist and working on lived religion in Ghana for more than 20 years, currently chairs the research program Religious Matters in an Entangled World ( She is one of the editors of the volume.

Wayne Modest is director of the Research Center for Material Culture and Professor by Special Appointment of Material Culture and Critical Heritage Studies at the Faculty of the Humanities at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. His research addresses issues of belonging, displacement, material mobility, the history of ethnographical collections and contested heritage.

Mattijs van de Port (PhD cultural anthropology, 1994) is Professor of Popular Religiosity at VU University Amsterdam and Associate Professor at the anthropology department of the University of Amsterdam. In his written and filmic work on Serbia, the Netherlands and Brazil, he addresses the tensions inherent in human modes of world-making. He is one of the editors of the volume.

Irene Stengs is Professor by Special Appointment “Anthropology of Ritual and Popular Culture” at the Vrije Universiteit and senior researcher at the Meertens Instituut in Amsterdam. In her research in Thailand and the Netherlands she focusses on popular religiosity, material culture, commemorative ritual and processes of heritage formation.

Rhoda Woets is an Assistant Professor at Utrecht University College, the Netherlands. She has published on contemporary art in Ghana, the circulation and appropriation of Jesus pictures in urban Ghana and African wax cloth fabrics.


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