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1Over the past fifteen years, numerous authors have attempted to analyse the reasons behind the heritage boom (Choay, 1996; Rautenberg, 2003; Heinich, 2009), a phenomenon they attribute to the considerable increase in not only the types of objects with heritage potential but also the temporal scale that these can represent. This special issue of the Revue de Géographie Alpine focuses on this typological and chronological expansion of heritage objects. More specifically, the four contributions examine the processes that lead to the designation of new heritage objects,  three of them in the Alps and one in the mid-altitude mountains of Ardèche. These processes are very often subject to controversy or, at the very least, are the result of negotiations (Smith 2008). Far from being just an economic resource or an opportunity for tourism, heritage reflects the identity of a group (Rautenberg, 2003; Micoud, 2005): designating heritage signifies that “a society has taken a look at itself and has taken its places, objects and monuments as intelligible reflections of its history and culture (translation)” (Jeudy, 2008, p. 14). This selection process depends a great deal on the representations and values transmitted by a society (Graham & Howard, 2008). Throughout history, the Alps and mountainous regions have often been perceived, imagined and described as areas endowed with strong cultural traditions and a rich natural environment (Crettaz, 1993; Walter, 1998; Backhaus, Reichler & Stremlow, 2007; Berthoud, 2009; Petite, 2011). Corresponding to these images readily associated with mountain areas there are therefore recurrent types of heritage objects: natural areas of great value, an architecture representative of a traditional agricultural economy, etc.

2The four contributions in this issue deal with these heritage objects which, on the one hand, comply with these images – so-called traditional feasts, traditional languages, objects that help tell the specific geological history of the Alps – but which, on the other hand, are detached from them – intangible know-how rather than simple tangible objects, abiotic elements rather than biotic, objects produced very recently (such as civil engineering structures) rather than simple representations of a “tradition”.

3Even more specifically, this issue seeks to investigate how these objects are designated, and by whom, and to examine the procedures that result in the objects becoming part of heritage. Scientific expertise is shown to play a prominent role in this process (in the case of geotopes, for example). Institutions are also found to have a very powerful designation role, particularly in the recognition of minority languages. The tourism context of the regions concerned is also a decisive factor in heritage development, as borne out by the examples of geological heritage and the Millau Viaduct. Finally, it is important that a large part of the society associated with what is designated as heritage is able to identify with it. Indeed, this is vital to the success of the process, as the example of carnivals demonstrates.

4In examining these heritage issues, the four articles refer to very different case studies. The article by Reynard, Hobléa, Cayla and Gauchon focuses on objects that are relatively new in the heritage domain, namely geotopes. The authors point out, however, that natural and geological sites have for a long time been promoted and protected in the Alps, but their interest is now based on different values.

5The article by Senil also examines “new” heritage objects with a comparative study of a very recently constructed object (the Millau Viaduct) and one that dates back to prehistory (the Chauvet cave). He shows that designating heritage is no longer simply the task of the State but the result of interplay between several actors (individuals, groups, public authorities).

6Heritage that may be qualified as intangible is the subject of the other two articles. Zola analyses the failed attempt to revive a village carnival in Val de Suse and shows how this failure can be due to a lack of shared symbols within the community. Finally, the article by Steinicke, Walder, Löffler and Beismann looks at the preservation of languages in the Alps. It too demonstrates the difficulties of obtaining heritage status for the intangible and of linking, with the help of legislation, a language to a defined territory.

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Backhaus N., Reichler C. Stremlow M., 2007. – Paysages des Alpes. De la représentation à l’action. Zurich, VDF.

Berthoud G., 2001. – “The «spirit of the Alps» and the making of political and economic modernity in Switzerland”. Social Anthropology n° 1, pp. 81-94.

Choay F., 1996. – L’allégorie du patrimoine. Paris, Seuil.

Crettaz B., 1993. – La beauté du reste. Confession d'un conservateur de musée sur la perfection et l'enfermement de la Suisse et des Alpes. Carouge, Zoé.

Graham B., Howard P., 2008. – The Ashgate Research Companion to Heritage and Identity. Aldershot, Ashgate.

Heinich N., 2009. – La fabrique du patrimoine. De la cathédrale à la petite cuillère. Paris, Maison des Sciences de l’homme.

Jeudy H.-P., 2008. – La Machine patrimoniale. Belval, Circé.

Micoud A., 2005. – « La patrimonialisation, ou comment redire ce qui nous relie. Un point de vue sociologique ». In Barrère C., D. Barthélémy, M. Nieddu, F.-D. Vivien (éds.), Réinventer le patrimoine. De la culture à l’économie, une nouvelle pensée du patrimoine. Paris, Harmattan, pp. 81-97.

Petite M., 2011. – Identités en chantiers dans les Alpes. Des projets qui mobilisent objets, territoires et réseaux. Berne, Peter Lang.

Rautenberg M., 2003. – La rupture patrimoniale. Bernin, A la Croisée.

Smith L., 2006. – Uses of heritage. London, Routledge.

Walter F., 1998. –. « La symbolique de l’Arc Alpin ». In Dumont G.-F. et A. Zurfluh. L’Arc Alpin. Histoire et géopolitique d’un espace européen. Paris & Zurich : Economica & Thesis Verlag, pp. 93-105.

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Mathieu Petite, « Preface », Revue de Géographie Alpine | Journal of Alpine Research [En ligne], 99-2 | 2011, mis en ligne le 20 juillet 2011, consulté le 25 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Mathieu Petite

Département de géographie et environnement, Université de Genève,

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