Exploiting culture, mining heritage?

Bart Zwegers, ‘Goldmine or bottomless pitt? Exploiting Cornwall’s mining heritage’, Journal of Tourism, Heritage & Services Marketing 4.1 (2018), 15-22

We’re now very familiar with the dominant outsider take on Cornwall, a place of coastal landscape and selfish hedonism that invites an escape for those able to buy into the ‘Cornwall lifestyle’. Meanwhile, the Cornish people, their heritage and the inland places they inhabit are largely erased or out of sight. It’s a broadly romantic view, fuelled by holiday experiences and media stereotypes. But there’s another less common version, one that sympathises with and romanticises the people of Cornwall and their historic struggle. We can see this to some extent in Winston Graham’s Poldark books, although the borders were always blurred. In the two television series, things have gradually shifted towards the more tiresomely typical end of the romantic spectrum, all raging seas, mine ruins and coastal vistas.

More clearly, an inverted romanticism can be found in some temporary and permanent residents who come to Cornwall and fall in love with the people and their culture rather than with the view. They then throw themselves into aspects of ‘Cornish’ culture, learning the revived language and even getting involved in autonomist politics. In its full manifestation this turns the role of tourism on its head. Tourism becomes the evil blight threatening a ‘pure’ Cornish identity.

Academic versions of this inverted romanticism are rare, but academics are hardly immune to the clarion call of common stereotypes of Cornwall. More usually this involves tropes of parochialism, tradition and remoteness. In contrast, viewed from Maastricht University, where Bart Zwegers is based, Cornwall becomes a place where the heritage industry was imposed on an existing tourism template and de-industrialised society by a neo-liberal Tory government in the 1980s. This then triggered spirited resistance from the Cornish. Regional politicians argued that tourism was no economically sustainable alternative to mining, so nationalism grew. The Cornish heritage became a ‘ball in a game of identity politics’ as ‘sometimes violent’ campaigns erupted against English Heritage and its agents.

The romantic gaze in general focuses on selected aspects and then exaggerates them. This article is no exception. For those of us who lived through the 1980s and 1990s the ‘violence and foul language’ that was then used to demand Cornish autonomy comes as a slight surprise. Yes, more radical demands were in the air in those days, but the picture drawn by Zwegers is not easily recognisable.

The article is interesting in that it shows that it’s possible for a very sympathetic reading of Cornish identity and heritage to make its way into an academic journal. However, it’s fundamentally flawed by an enthusiastic but wildly mistaken analysis. The heritage debate of the 1980s was not the ‘seedbed’ for nationalism that’s argued here. Cornish nationalism goes back a lot further than the heritage turn of the 1980s and its most militant days arguably predated it.

True, there were, and are, heated debates over heritage, its interpretation and the consequences of imposing organisations such as English Heritage on Cornwall. But these, and the reactions to them, require a much more nuanced approach than the one in this article, which prefers to conjure up a clear-cut insider/outsider dichotomy, ignoring the role of local actors in promulgating tourism, for example. It also favours black and white binaries, such as an economic history that went from ‘incredible richness to immense deprivation’. That’s not to mention simplistic contrasts; ‘miners with righteous professional pride were forced into menial and servile jobs like ice-cream seller or car-park attendant’.

Moreover, the piece is also marred by spelling errors (as in its title), inaccurate facts (as in the account of the decline of mining in the mid-1800s), a superficial understanding of Cornish history and questionable assertions, such as ‘nowadays the battle for Cornish autonomy takes place on the diplomatic level’, meaning … ?? Which all becomes a mite embarrassing when we note that a high proportion of the references cited in the article turn out to be sourced not a million miles away from the writer of this review!

One thought on “Exploiting culture, mining heritage?

  1. It is annoying when people use binaries to describe communities, all of which will be more complex then you argue Zweger describes. Researchers shouldn’t have to live through a time, or with a people, to be able to comment, however, they do need to provide evidence, and from your review it seems that Zweger hasn’t? Certainly, I lived through the 1980s and 1990s mostly in Cornwall and often debating moves to recognition and reflecting on autonomy, and I know that we weren’t foul mouthed!

    Is Bart Zweger’s article a reflection of Masstricht University’s view though? It’s not usual for a researcher’s view to reflect that of their university, normally it is the quality of what is written that is of concern for a university, for instance, how it is produce, ethics and evidence, not the stance taken. Otherwise there would be loads of Marxist universities in the UK!


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