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Chapter 4: Tangible Heritage

What do I mean by "tangible heritage"?

Tangible cultural heritage are the physical objects that represent the present and past of a culture. They are material goods, such as artifacts, clothing, food, art, instruments, buildings, or monuments that are given a strong connection to the culture in which they are created. They are the physical manifestation of the knowledges and traditions of a culture, and are often those pieces of material culture passed down from generation to generation. In particular, tangible cultural heritage consists of those objects that are deemed culturally important and are sought for preservation and dissemination in cultural heritage centers and museums throughout the world. When you visit a museum, you are seeing the tangible heritage of another culture (or even your own!).

  • To view the markers individually or see them in comparison to each other, click on the lines next to the marker name in the key to toggle it on or off on the chart. Hover over the bubbles to see the counts of the marker for that year. Check out the Glossary to get more information on the translations/meanings of each marker!

Markers of Tangible Heritage explored in the literature:

  • tromme
  • samedrakt
  • runestein
  • stavkirke/stavkyrkje
  • rådyr
  • pålegg
  • brunost
  • lutefisk
  • ribbe
  • bunad
  • nisselue
  • fossekall
  • torsk
  • ostehøvel
  • hardingfele
  • selbu
  • hardanger
  • rosemaling

What interesting things do I see from this chart?

Of all the markers I have examined for this project thus far, the most interesting one I have found is the frequency of "pålegg" as the most noticeable of the markers of tangible heritage in my chart. It is one of those words in Norwegian that is a bit difficult to translate directly to English; "lunchmeat" is not enough, so maybe the ineloquent "things you put on your sandwich" is the best translation. It's true that this is a fixture in Norwegian meals, often eaten for breakfast and lunch. It is no surprise to me that "torsk" or cod, is close behind, given Norway's lively fishing industry and the availability of this particular fish for consumption in Norway. I have anecdotal tales of being told that I need to learn like fish if I'm going to Norway (which is great, I love fish) because of how many meals include fish. It would seem they like to write about it too.

Other markers which feature in this chart include hardanger, which refers to the Hardanger fiddle, and Selbu, which is the distinctive intricate Norwegian rose pattern found on many mittens. You can read a fun short story about the origin of this mitten here. To my disappointment, stave churches, or "stavekirke" in Bokmål, do not feature as highly as other markers of tangible heritage. Perhaps this is an indicator of the loss of many stave churches throughout the centuries to poor preservation or reuse of materials - the less that they survive, the less they are written and spoken about.

Why is this group of markers important to national identity?

Material culture is important to cultural heritage and identity for a variety of reasons. It is through these types of objects that connections and meanings are made between the people of a society and the greater knowledges (intangible heritage) they wish to pass down to their subsequent generations. These objects become infused with symbolic meaning, as their existence as the material object preserves the narratives of tradition that becomes synonymous with their materiality (Bourdieu 1997). They are very important for the study of national identity and human history in general, as they are the physical representation of a culture's ideas, and can lend validation to those knowledges and their existence. Material objects can also act as the preserver of memories, and can be a beacon for the collective memory of a culture (Stoler 2013, Trouillot 1995). The preservation of tangible heritage is always a contestable issue, because while we want to share our material objects in order for others to learn about them, the danger of damage and destruction is always present.

Traditions and customs often become entwined with the material culture that comprises their rites and rituals, and this changes as these traditions and the material culture associated with them moves through time and space (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). When enough of this material culture becomes uniquely tied to certain traditions within a society, it is through this process that they become a part of a nationally recognized identity, or in other words, they develop into a nationalism. One has to be careful with the interpretation of the meaning of markers of tangible heritage. Their meaning, as said, can change through time and space as culture changes, and thus meanings that are ascribed in the present day, and thus their perceived place in national identity, might not be those meanings that were originally associated with the material culture upon its first inception (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). Therefore, tangible heritage presents a fascinating yet complex look into national identity in Norway. Are we seeing the more pronounced and frequent markers of tangible heritage because of their meaning projected today, or do they carry meaning passed down?

Where can you read about tangible heritage in Norway?

  • Berman, Tressa 1997 Beyond the Museum: The Politics of Representation in Asserting Rights to Cultural Property. Museum Anthropology 21: 19–27.
  • Kohl, Philip L. 1998 Nationalism and Archaeology: On the Constructions of Nations and the Reconstructions of the Remote Past. Annual Review of Anthropology 27: 223-246.
  • Newman, Andrew & Fiona McLean (2006) The Impact of Museums upon Identity, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 12:1, 49-68.
  • Stoler, Ann Laura 2013 Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Trouillot, Michel-Rolph 1995 Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Webb, Sharon 2006 Making museums, making people: the representation of the Sámi through material culture. Public Archaeology 5(3): 167-183.
  • White, Geoffrey M. 1997 Museum/Memorial/Shrine: National Narrative in National Spaces. Museum Anthropology. 21 (1): 8–27.