Heritage Managers: Addressing poverty, social justice, literacy, numeracy, citizenship…

In one of my jobs, emails from our security guards about incidents were a regular occurrence, usually involving large groups of youngsters trespassing and getting drunk. One day, I was feeling rather depressed about this and I told my friend, ‘I feel I need to be a social worker in this job, not a heritage manager.’

The recent Culture and Poverty report by Baroness Kay Andrews reminded me of that day. Decision makers expect a lot of heritage and museums professionals, especially in such challenging and demanding environments as can be found in Wales [1]. However, I’m neither sure that we have the training to meet the particular challenges of these environments, nor that we should be the people (and sector) expected to do so.

Take community engagement for example, which is one of the key foci of the report. It should of course be part of the skills-set of any heritage manager or museum professional. But there is quite a difference between engaging with a community that ‘just’ may not visit your museum, and engaging with a community that struggles to survive. It is one thing showing young people what the museum has to offer them, and quite another discouraging them from burning down a historical structure in the first place (and I mean literally).

I certainly wasn’t prepared for the latter when I first started. My team and I did a lot of the reaching out and networking that the report calls for, but throughout, the above feeling stayed with me. It was exhausting.

So while I fully support the view that heritage, culture and the arts have a lot to contribute to all sorts of social initiatives, I’m not sure we can or should place the core burden on heritage and museums professionals. Yes, they should be open and willing to engage with all kinds of partners, such as Community Safety, Youth Workers and Social Care. And yes, they should certainly actively reach out to them all. But if decision makers expect heritage and museums professionals to deliver these programmes as the lead, then they will need to provide the necessary training and support. They will also need to provide better funding, which doesn’t constantly threaten museums and heritage professionals with losing their jobs, so that skills can not only be gained, but also retained long-term. The same goes for those carefully nurtured relationships not only with partners, but also with (let’s call them) users – one-offs or constantly changing staff undermine and actually damage work that has already been done.

Decision-makers also need to take responsibility for the, well, decisions that they make which affect society at large. Benefit cuts and immigration caps, and the rhetoric that goes with these, probably all have a greater detrimental impact on social exclusion and deprivation than any community engagement efforts by museums and heritage professionals can alleviate. If families can’t afford to travel to our sites, then making them more attractive won’t provide a solution – it’s the government that needs to do something. And so on.

I am not suggesting that the report ignores the above entirely – it doesn’t [2]. But having worked in the South Wales Valleys, and seen the excellent efforts of so many museums, heritage and social work people there, I’m just a little bit worried about recommendations to a government and the cultural sector as a whole that focus so much on what the sector should do and should achieve. I’m beginning to get worried that this is just setting heritage up for failure, by shifting responsibilities and creating unrealistic expectations in a context that is itself becoming increasingly damaging to social inclusion, positive empowerment, and opportunities for all.


[1] The report writes that Wales has the highest rate of child poverty outside London. Wales has some of the most deprived areas in the UK. (p. 12) 24% of the population in Wales live in Communities First clusters. (p.13)

[2] Recommendation 2, for example, at least suggests the creation of a task force to the Welsh Government, which would ‘identify solutions to barriers around transport’ (p. 4), although it doesn’t outright suggest funding be made available.

5 thoughts on “Heritage Managers: Addressing poverty, social justice, literacy, numeracy, citizenship…

  1. Nicole, I think the importance of your commentary here is self-evident, and it can be extended to an even more comprehensive discussion about “sustainable development.” Poverty is a powerful barrier to not only social but economic inclusion. A widely cited statistic some years ago was that, in Latin America, just 4% of the population owned 96% of the wealth. Having worked in development in that part of the world for decades, I have observed little that would change those numbers today, and similar statistics are known in Africa and parts of Asia. It doesn’t take a very sharp pencil to calculate that when the “have nots” outnumber the “haves” by such overwhelming proportions, inclusion in the heritage and economic opportunities owned and managed by the “haves” is going to be difficult for the rest.

    I pay special note to one of your observations below: “If families can’t afford to travel to our sites, then making them more attractive won’t provide a solution – it’s the government that needs to do something.” I worked in Tikal National Park, Guatemala, for a number of years. The visitor population consisted almost exclusively of wealthy nationals and international tourists who came to explore the remnants of great Maya Civilization. Everyday Guatemalans (who are typically indigenous, very poor and cannot afford the journey to the remote park) were hardly represented at all in the visitor population. People sometimes ask, “whatever happened to the Maya, where did they go?” The answer is that they’ve not gone anywhere. They are the same Guatemalans who can’t afford to visit the park that commemorates their own living culture. Tikal National Park presents to the world, first and foremost, THEIR heritage. Yet they are effectively excluded from it by their poverty.

    Yes, governments do need to act. But will they have the will and political capital to act in a society where the “haves” make all the decisions. Food for thought maybe?

    1. Hi Sam,

      These are really interesting points (and very depressing stats). Power relations are an important issue to explore all around. A recent report over here about arts funding basically has highlighted that much of the money for funding comes from those on lower incomes (lottery) but is invested in activities enjoyed by those on the highest incomes. We are yet to see if anything will change.

      The example you give of Tikal National Park and the ‘absent’ Mayans is so very ironic. It illustrates perfectly how society and economic circumstances affect people’s ability to engage with heritage – as you rightly point out, their own heritage. I wonder if they still see it as such. Do they care? Would they want to participate? One challenge we had is that some people in our community not only didn’t care about what was, ultimately, their heritage, they actively went out of their way to try and damage it. When challenged why they did that, they had no answer, other than ‘just because’. That was actually more depressing than anything else.


  2. Well, i think heritage is a cross-cutting topic that is of course touching many different aspects of the citizen’s life. I think we need a better (and more holistic) understanding of heritage and heritage management especially among decision makers. Tools, like heritage management plans can be a valuable Instrument adressing not only “core” heritage issues like preservation but also many topics that are connected to it. Within the Framework of the HerO Project (Heritage as opportunity, URBACTII) we developed a methodology how to use management plans for a better understanding of this issues. You can also find in the action plans developed within this framework many examples.

    1. Hi Matthias,

      Well, no disagreement there: heritage touches many aspects of people’s lives. A quick look at a couple of HerO action plans shows similar recommendations and methodologies that we have here in the UK, all of which work perfectly well in a context that isn’t riddled with serious socio-economic issues. Do you have examples of heritage successfully being in the lead where the heritage crime rate was extremely high, in communities with extreme deprivation, disassociation, and very wide-spread social exclusion? I would be really interested in evaluations of those projects. My experience in the UK makes me believe, as I’ve expressed in the post, that heritage cannot successfully be in the lead in these areas, certainly not given the current funding environment and heritage management education. I do fear that heritage is expected to plug a hole created by austerity, which, if it fails, will only serve to justify further funding cuts as it ‘doesn’t deliver’. I would welcome examples that prove me wrong.


  3. We are preparing a project at the moment in countries with a more difficult environment. From my experiece, strategic planning and heritage management requires a certain minimum of existing structures. Certainly heritage is no wonder weapon for every urban problem. I think “secondary” benefits like the improvement of social ceherence, etc. can be achieved in the long-term range, but A LOT of other parameters matter…

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