Budget cuts: What Sense of Heritage Will We Have Left?

The latest issue of the UK Museums Journal gives plenty of evidence of the impact budget cuts have on the museums and heritage sector.  English Heritage is about to shut down its entire (!) outreach department, the Victoria and Albert Museum has downgraded its post of Director of Learning and Interpretation to Head of Education (the sheer terminology of which representing a step backward), and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, whose functions are soon to be taken over by the Arts Council England, has served several museum development officers with risk of redundancy notices, thus jeopardising the forward development of many museums who might benefit from their support.

Of course, the fabric of the heritage, be it objects in museums or Britain’s famed castles, will still be preserved.  But without interpretation, without outreach and ongoing support for visitor programmes, who will care?

These cuts in the heritage sector go against everything that heritage legislation and recent policies have stipulated and recognised.  Even if we put aside that heritage is supposed to enhance our sense of identity (1990 ICOMOS Lausanne Charter) and help us lead balanced and complete lives (1975 European Charter of the Architectural Heritage), ensuring that people understand the importance of protecting our heritage is also called upon as an intrinsic part of gaining people’s support.

If the sector is no longer able to help people make a connection to their heritage, who will care about a museum stuffed full of objects?  Who will care about the pile of old stones on top of the hill?  Heritage is not in the fabric of things, it is in the hearts and minds of people.  And with these cuts, we are just about to wipe that heritage out.

I do know that every sector is worthy of support, and I know that the government and local councils are having to make tough decisions.  But to jeopardise our sense of heritage in my opinion is the worst that can happen.  We may not yet have enough hard evidence to prove what every interpreter and heritage manager knows in their hearts to be true but that doesn’t change my conviction: heritage does provide us with a sense of orientation, as the American legislation that created the National Register of Historic Places in 1966 says.  Heritage does tell us about our own roots and that of humanity as a whole, and it provides us with inspiration and aspiration.  If we’re cut off from that, what could possibly replace it?  Not the sheer presence of stones on a hill, I’m sure.

We need people to interact with people.  We need people who understand stakeholders and visitors and who have the know-how to connect them with a site’s many meanings.  Conserving and preserving isn’t enough.  Just imagine how quickly we throw things out when clearing out our house.  It’s when we hold that book in our hands and remember where we bought it and how a loved one read it out to us in the store that the book turns from mere object to a part of who we are.  Without interpretation and programming and outreach we deny people to learn about that part of themselves.  And in turn, they may just no longer agree that any money should be spent at all on what looks just like any other old object.  Who cares?

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