University of Sussex

File(s) not publicly available

Inspirations and obligations: remembering the industrial past in modern Britain

posted on 2023-06-08, 15:23 authored by Emily RobinsonEmily Robinson
The political potential of industrial heritage is ambiguous, particularly on the left. On the one hand heritage is seen as a potentially radical force, which enables marginalized communities to locate themselves in relation to the past and thus provides political resources for the present. On the other, it is seen to be overwhelmingly conservative, both nostalgic for the traditional values of mythologised working-class communities and also playing into neoliberal narratives of national and industrial progress, which both celebrate capitalist values and frame large-scale manufacturing as inherently ‘of the past’. The conflict between these two positions came to a head in the late 1980s, when British popular culture seemed to be losing a direct connection with its past at the same time as reveling in evocations of ‘pastness’.   Early twenty-first century interpretations of industrial heritage projects have tended to take something of a middle line, both emphasizing the benefits of ‘heritage work’ as a way of reconciling the past and present identities of post-industrial communities and also sounding a warning about the need for these projects to come from the bottom up, not to be imposed by external agencies or to take an overly romantic view of either ‘the past’ or mythologised ‘tight-knit’ working-class communities. Moreover, they have questioned the portrayal of visitors to heritage sites as passive and consumerist tourists and shown that in fact they frequently have a personal connection with the particular site, and also display thoughtful and nuanced responses to the heritage on display.     This chapter reflects on the ways in which recent industrial heritage projects both reflect and also depart from longer-term understandings of heritage within the labour movement. In particular, it traces the shift from attitudes which saw heritage as an obligation to those which see it as an inspiration. While the former stressed the need to pay tribute to the sacrifices made by political forbears and to bear the memory of past injustices forward, the latter uses heritage as a way of affirming the present. It is often not linked to a specific political project, but tends to be associated with expressions of local and community identity.


Publication status

  • Published







Book title

The invention of industrial pasts: heritage, political culture and economic debates in Great Britain and Germany, 1850-2010

Place of publication





Beitra¨ge zur England-Forschung

Department affiliated with

  • Politics Publications

Full text available

  • No

Peer reviewed?

  • No


Christian Müller, Peter Itzen

Legacy Posted Date


Usage metrics

    University of Sussex (Publications)


    No categories selected