Enough with the woolly!

In the UK the impact of budget cuts is starting to become evident all around us.  The latest issue of the Museums Journal abounds with news of museum closures, staff reductions or reduced opening hours. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council is about to become usurped by the Arts Council in England and funding programmes are slimmed down.

People are complaining, some quietly, some less so.  What’s missing in the response from the museums and heritage sector, however, is a solid, clear argument for why the cuts should not be directed at us.

Of course, it’s still a hotly debated issue, that of the value of culture and heritage.  Especially in the past reference to an ‘intrinsic value’ seems to have been enough.  For years, however, even that ‘intrinsic value’ has been called into question.  Some writers have argued that it doesn’t even exist: every value is a social construct, and it can change over time [1].  This also highlights the issue of who defines and upholds any given ‘intrinsic’ value.  Many specialists will fiercely defend an object that is relevant to their field due to its age or rarity.  But if this object doesn’t hold any value for anyone else, can we really justify spending valuable resources on it?

This is really the key dilemma.  I’m not arguing the case for the government, but in principle, any funding and policy decisions have to be transparent.  Such transparency relies on objective criteria, and these are mostly measured in monetary terms.  A cost-benefit analysis is generally the norm, and it is here that the ‘intrinsic value’ argument falls short in its persuasive power.  The obvious answer, therefore, is that we need to give culture and heritage an economic value: it needs a price attached that can be compared.  This is not ideal.  Any valuation method to arrive at such a price is flawed and subject to many factors [2].  However, even the sceptics acknowledge that such economic valuation is likely to get close to the intrinsic values, or those which will be difficult to express in monetary terms [3].  No doubt cultural institutions, including museums, will be increasingly asked to undertake such valuation of their services.

I think that’s a good thing. It can only improve practice and strengthen the sector’s position.  And I hope interpreters will learn from this too.  I still hear myself say over and over again that in interpretation we need more hard data and proof that we’re actually making a difference.  Too often, even at conferences, interpreters still contend themselves with mere claims of the benefits of interpretation in general and specific interventions in particular.  We must begin to be more critical.  We must strive to produce data, scientifically gathered, that backs us up.  We all can do it, even if it’s just on a small scale.  Clear objectives and learning outcomes that are consequently tested in evaluations and visitor surveys may not provide an economic valuation but they are a first step toward providing proof that what we do works (or doesn’t?).  This should be built into every interpreter’s daily practice anyway.  This cannot replace the in-depth research that we need to understand underlying factors.  But as more universities begin to offer courses in interpretation, such research will surely follow and thus will give further substance and credit to interpreters.  After all, I have no doubt that as museums and heritage sites are assessed with regard their economic value to society, interpretation will become part of that valuation.

So let’s not sell ourselves short.  Let’s prove what we’re worth.



[1] See for example Tunbridge, J.E. and Ashworth, G.J. (1996) Dissonant Heritage.  The Management of the past as a resource in conflict. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons and Howard, P. (2003) Heritage: Management, Interpretation, Identity. London: Continuum.

[2] For a review of economic valuation see Provins, A et al (2008) ‘Valuation of the historic environment: The scope for using economic valuation evidence in the appraisal of heritage-related projects’. Progress in Planning 69, 131-175

[3] see for example Throsby, D (2006) ‘The value of cultural heritage: Whatcan economics tell us?’ in Clark, K (ed) (2006) Capturing the Public Value of Heritage: The Proceedings of the London Conference 25-26 January 2006. London: English Heritage pp 40 – 44


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