David Lowenthal obituary

Scholar who established heritage studies as an academic discipline in its own right

In 2017 the historian and geographer David Lowenthal, who has died aged 95, gave a lecture at University College London in which he insisted: “Heritage is not history: heritage is what people make of their history to make themselves feel good.” He contrasted the way that individual nations and tribes imagine their own heritage with the conception recently promoted by international organisations, notably Unesco, that heritage must be universal, for the good of all.

A case in point is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built on a site said to cover locations important around the time of Jesus’s death. Six Orthodox and Catholic Christian denominations own different parts of the church, while two Muslim families look after its entrance. Solutions to the resulting clashes of responsibility are very much needed, just as with other sacred sites in the city.

American-born but British by inclination, David became professor of geography at UCL in 1972, retiring as emeritus professor in 1986. Apart from Unesco, the heritage agencies he advised included the World Monuments Fund, English Heritage, the US National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Trust of Australia. Never afraid of controversy, he presented cogent opinions on a host of topics, such as the Elgin Marbles, the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford and the role of the Barclay twins on the island of Sark.

He helped make heritage studies a discipline in its own right: the lecture he gave last year was the first in an annual series for UCL’s recently founded Centre for Critical Heritage Studies. In doing so, he pointed to the way history seeks to identify the truth while heritage exaggerates and omits, invents and forgets in order to fabricate prejudiced pride in the past. Heritage is fashioned to “attest our identity and affirm our worth”, an argument he developed further in The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1997).

On his travels in the US, David Lowenthal delighted in taking black and white photographs of striking outdoor scenes.
On his travels in the US, David Lowenthal delighted in taking black and white photographs of striking outdoor scenes. Photograph:

In his earlier book The Past Is a Foreign Country (1985) he explored how societies appraise, understand and make use of the past, assembling evidence not only from literary and artistic sources but also from television dramas, cartoons and science fiction. Most examples related to North America and Europe during the past three centuries, with more than 100 illustrations, many of them photographs he had taken himself.

Three decades later he brought out The Past Is a Foreign Country – Revisited (2015), with new examples and insights. He argued that empathy, re-enactment, memory and commemoration were overwhelming historical scholarship. Statements by experts were giving way to messages shaped, in part, by the general public. A new fourth section entitled Disputing the Past joined the previous three on writing, knowing and changing the past. Though Revisited drew critical acclaim, some regretted that little was said about how the digital revolution facilitated popular access to the past, or about the global south.

His prolonged concern for environment and heritage stemmed from his doctoral dissertation on the American polymath George Perkins Marsh (1801-82). Marsh drew on his experiences in Vermont, Turkey and Italy to chronicle the devastating impact of human activity on nature, and advocated conservation practices in his pioneering text Man and Nature; Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (1864).

David’s initial appraisal, George Perkins Marsh: Versatile Vermonter (1958), was followed by a centenary reprint of Marsh’s seminal work, which linked culture with nature, science with society, landscape with history. The 600-page George Perkins Marsh: Prophet of Conservation (2000) shed fresh light on the linguist, lawyer, congressman and diplomat who helped found the Smithsonian Institution, wrote about fisheries and irrigation, revealed the menace of environmental misuse and advocated nature conservation. David showed how Man and Nature, like Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, opened a truly modern way of looking at the world.

David Lowenthal presented cogent opinions on a host of topics, such as the Elgin Marbles, the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford and the role of the Barclay twins on the island of Sark.
David Lowenthal presented cogent opinions on a host of topics, such as the Elgin Marbles, the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford and the role of the Barclay twins on the island of Sark. Photograph: Becky Pendergast

Like John Kirtland Wright, his senior colleague at the American Geographical Society (AGS), David revealed how environmental awareness grew from personal perceptions rather than directly mirroring reality. The book he edited with Martyn Bowden in Wright’s honour was entitled Geographies of the Mind (1976). David’s paper Geography, Experience and Imagination (1961) was fundamental to the study of environmental perception and served as a touchstone for his later work on landscape tastes and cherished environments. He identified the kinds of landscape that Britons and Americans most responded to, why that might be, and what it meant to national identity and for the future of the countryside. On his own travels in the US, he delighted in taking black and white photographs of striking outdoor scenes.

A native of New York City, David was the eldest of three children of Max Lowenthal, a lawyer and adviser to President Harry Truman, and his wife, Eleanor (nee Mack). After graduating from Harvard University with a history degree in 1943, he saw military service in Europe. In the final months of the second world war he was assigned as the geographer – a term he didn’t know then – to work with a Hollywood photographer documenting roads, bridges and buildings, first in Auvergne, France, and then crossing Germany to Pilsen, where the Americans and Russians met. He first visited Britain when sent there to recover from trenchfoot.

Carl Sauer, his geography professor at the University of California, Berkeley (1947-49), suggested the career of Marsh for David’s doctoral thesis in 1953 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

He then taught geography and history at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, until becoming research associate with the AGS in 1956. During the 1960s he combined this work with visiting professorships and research positions, notably with the University of the West Indies and the Institute of Race Relations, London. The resulting book, West Indian Societies, appeared in 1972, the year of his appointment to UCL. Islands in general formed another major interest: the challenges they faced, environmental threats and social adjustments.

David and I first met when he joined UCL. He taught undergraduates about the West Indies and the conservation of historic features, and contributed memorable seminars to postgraduates. He introduced us to the concept of soundscapes, using recordings of ships’ horns in the far east and of plates being smashed against the wall of a Greek taverna. We also benefited from the flow of US academics who came to visit David, whose views we could learn at first hand.

Elected a fellow of the British Academy in 2001, David received the British Academy Medal in 2016 for The Past Is a Foreign Country – Revisited. He gave keynote lectures and attended conferences throughout his busy retirement, and had received the proofs of his last book, Quest for the Unity of Knowledge, a few days before his death.

In 1970, David married Mary Alice Lamberty, a colleague at the AGS, who was involved in his work and shared his love of dispensing hospitality. She survives him, along with their daughter, Eleanor, another daughter, Catherine, a granddaughter and a grandson.

• David Lowenthal, historian and geographer, born 26 April 1923; died 15 September 2018


Hugh Clout

The GuardianTramp

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