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Posts Tagged ‘heritage tourism industry’

As far as J. Geraint Jenkins is concerned, the Welsh efforts to present the nation’s industrial heritage (!) are mostly doomed.  The reason is that sites, and coalmines in particular, are just not grimy enough.  He also points out that much fabric has been lost, leaving the remaining structures without the all-important context.  In presenting these faint shadow images of what life in Wales was like is to fall prey to romanticism and nostalgia, two demons that Jenkins evokes continually in his book ‘Getting yesterday right.’

I cannot help but detect in his writing that on-going suggestion of ‘heritage’ as an institution and industry.  In between the lines images are conjured of thrifty economists concocting ‘the heritage product’ that they can ‘sell’ to ‘tourists’ desperate for the romance of the past.  I’m a heritage manager myself, and my day-to-day job could not be more different.

Certainly Jenkins is right that many a valley has tried and is still trying to create a tourism attraction with whatever industrial remains they have left (and who can blame them).  But the issue here does not lie with heritage value per se, but with the tourism industry that may too freely apply the term ‘heritage’ to anything that might prove a tourism asset.  Heritage isn’t a ‘product’, it is an act performed by people.  Tourism managers may call it heritage, but that doesn’t make it so.

The other criticism that Jenkins has is that any interest that is detached from the dirt and noise of the coalmines is romantic and nostalgic.  He doesn’t elaborate on where this view comes from.  However, it does seem to hark back to a historian’s disdain for heritage as something less than history.  Of course, as David Lowenthal has shown in his book ‘The Heritage Crusade’ history and heritage are actually two completely different things altogether.  Other writers have since established the view of heritage as a practice, and like Lowenthal they have highlighted that selection, reworking and reinvention of historical facts are all crucial and necessary aspects of this heritage practice.  And the practice itself is crucial for our identity and meaning-making.

In other words, where Jenkins would like to see a whole valley still stuffed with coalmine dust, and the terraced houses cowering underneath black slag heaps to present what life was really like, the people who once lived that life might actually be mightily glad to see it gone.  A pit wheel and the opportunity to go down Big Pit if they want to, without the dust and danger, may be all they need to remember the true heritage value of the industry: the sense of camaraderie and endurance.  That’s what the miner-guide at Big Pit talked about when I went there; he even explicitly said he would not want to go back to work in the mines except for the bond he had with his colleagues.  That is the heritage of the coalmining industry.  The rest is just historical fact.

But would Jenkins prefer that we tell people’s history and not their heritage?  It does seem so.  And he is absolutely right that in presenting a whole valley as it used to be visitors would get the whole picture as an immersive experience.  I only wonder how many of them would ever want to come back?  And what about the people who live here?  Are we going to force them to live amid the reminders of what was a very hard and difficult life?  Are we going to turn them into museum pieces as well?

In all fairness, Jenkins does acknowledge that this would not be feasible.  He suggests that probably a multi-media piece of interpretation would be better, and I agree.  Only to me, this solution isn’t a regrettable compromise.  It does what good interpretation and heritage management should always do: it enables people to act on and live their heritage values as symbolised in spaces, while it gives them room to build on it, and change it, and use the security of that heritage to move forward and better themselves.  The dust and the noise are not heritage, they are history.  And some history just doesn’t need to be preserved in every grimy detail.

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After reading this month’s Museum Journal (published by the British Museums Association) one may well wonder if today’s leaders really no longer value heritage.  Stories of funding cuts have dominated both British and international coverage for months and we now read about the consequences of budgets thus slashed.  Winter opening hours are shortened, as with museums in Bristol [1], while others are threatened with closure, like the Roman and West Gate Towers museums in Canterbury [2].

While the British Department for Culture, Media and Sport is responsible also for the historic environment, museums and galleries as well as tourism, their top five priorities published in their structural reform plan only mention tourism and heritage in passing – museums do not figure at all.  Tourism shall benefit from the legacy of the 2012 Olympics in London, and heritage shall receive more funding (together with the arts and sport) from the National Lottery as part of the Big Society network.  The latter, if viewed favourably, is an initiative to allow for greater involvement of locals, or, if the Liverpool museums pilot project for the Big Society is anything to go by, it is the endeavour to pass responsibility on to private persons, i.e. volunteers.

Any public money spent on heritage, it seems, is first and foremost viewed as a luxury, or indeed ‘a waste of money’.  That is what Britain’s communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles labelled roles such as museum audience development officers.  ‘Is a ‘cheerleading development officer’ what taxpayers want?’ he is reported to have asked [3].  In actuality, audience development is the effort to reach previously excluded or disassociated people in order to widen access and engagement.  Without that effort on the part of museum staff those volunteers that are meant to support museums (and thus help them save money) as part of the ‘Big Society’ will never come forward in the numbers required.

Is that because they don’t care?  No, as many audience development programmes like the YES programme at the St Louis Science Centre have shown.  Here, low-income, non-white teenagers needed that additional encouragement to come into the museum – and then reach out to other families from their communities to help them overcome barriers to visiting the museum in the same way.  Of course, even when volunteers truly care about, say, a museum, they still have a day job to do in order to pay their bills and donate the money the government wants them to donate.  Also, one reason why some museums may see their visitor numbers dwindle may be because they do not have the staff (or volunteers) qualified to provide a service that is up to standards.

Governments and funders will do well to remind themselves of the considerable importance that heritage has.  Recent research for the Heritage Lottery Fund and Visit Britain revealed that 30% of international visitors and 14% of domestic day visitors travel in Britain because they wish to visit heritage sites.  The heritage visitor economy contributes £7.4bn to the British GPD, that is more than the advertising industry, motor vehicle manufacture, or the film industry contribute.  Of course, the economic value of heritage is much greater even than its mere commercial value, as the recent body of literature on economic valuation of heritage has shown [4]. In the United States, for example, heritage preservation legislation very clearly acknowledges the ability of heritage to provide inspiration and orientation to people [5].  A case study in Croatia also noted the importance of a visible and accessible past to people’s identity [6].

So can governments really afford to underfund professional heritage management and delegate it to private initiatives?  Heritage may seem an easy target for savings but a progressive disappearance of professionally cared-for and interpreted heritage from public life will have its own disastrous and long-term consequences.

Notes

[1] ‘Loss of funding leads to shorter opening hours in Bristol’, p. 7, August 2010 Museums Journal

[2] ‘Three museums in Kent threatened by budget cuts’, p. 7, May 2010 Museums Journal

[3] ‘Audience development roles are a ‘waste of money”, p. 9, August 2010 Museums Journal

[4] see for example 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

[5] United States Congress (1966) National Historic Preservation Act of 1966
as amended through 200
6. Act of Congress. Washington

[6] Goulding, C., Domic, D. (2009) ‘Heritage, Identity and Ideological Manipulation: The case of Croatia.’  Annals of Tourism Research 36, (1) 85 – 102

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