The Heritage ‘NGO’: a Case Study on the Role of Grass-roots Heritage Societies in Iran and Their Perception of Cultural Heritage

This paper examines the role of grass-roots heritage movements, also known as NGO's, in constructing a perception of cultural heritage and identity in contemporary Iran. Heritage is a specifically modern discourse and in Iran it could be traced back to the latter part of the nineteenth century. Here, as in any other context, this discourse is closely related to the development of the nation-state and the rise of various forms of state ideology such as nationalism. There is a strong institutional bond between sanctioned interpretations of heritage and state institutions as through those interpretations a sanctioned collective identity and culture are represented, propagated and proliferated. However, the official strand is but one interpretation of cultural heritage. Alternative interpretations are produced by heritage societies and grass-roots heritage activists. In Iran, such societies were provisioned for and became active since the mid-1990s. Their presence can be of particular importance in the context of Iran where there are multiple ethnic, social and political groups with various, at times conflicting relations with the centre. The situation is compounded by the presence of pre-Islamic and Islamic layers of identity in their various interpretations, which at times have been appropriated into state-level politics in the twentieth century. The NGOs have been active in promoting their goals and have at times engaged in controversies surrounding heritage. Focussing on case studies from among these societies, this paper examines some of their attitudes toward the construction Iranian identity particularly in the context of its relationship to the country's pre-Islamic heritage.