What is heritage?

It’s difficult to formulate an exact definition of heritage because it comprises so many different things, so many different aspects of our collective memory. Our heritage is much more than just objects from the past. It is a very present part of our everyday lives, whether we are aware of it or not. Our heritage can be seen in tangible objects such as commemorative plaques and inscriptions, buildings, neighbourhoods, parks and archeological remains, both obvious and hidden. But in Montreal, as elsewhere, our heritage is also intangible. It includes our traditions and the ways in which we celebrate our culture.

Think, for example, of the building techniques and traditions unique to Montreal. Equally, try to imagine what Montreal would be without bagels or smoked meat!

Here, though, we will concentrate solely on urban heritage. While architecture is necessarily a component, urban heritage also refers to landscapes, neighbourhoods, natural features and archeological sites. While many things serve as a reminder of the past, some are more significant than others and must be treated differently. To properly conserve built heritage, one has to understand the significance of a building or site and act in a way that is appropriate. In that light, one thing becomes very clear: the heritage interest of a site or object is a result of the value we attach to it, collectively or individually. Knowledge and recognition of value are inextricably linked in heritage conservation.

What we recognize as heritage evolves, however, on a daily basis. The definition of heritage is changing continually, and growing increasingly broad with time. What was considered uninteresting a generation ago can suddenly be important. The best example of this is modern or recent heritage. Place Ville Marie (1962) and Habitat 67 (1967), for example, are now part of Montreal’s heritage. “Old” does not automatically equal heritage interest and value—nor, incidentally, does “monumental”; witness Montrealers’ interest in the duplexes and triplexes of the Plateau Mont-Royal.

Finally, it is important to remember that all too often we recognize our heritage only when it is threatened with demolition or disfigurement. Heritage is a precious, non-renewable resource—we only lose it once—that lends remarkable quality to our surroundings, most often without our realizing it.