Posts Tagged ‘public benefit of heritage’

When I started working in a local authority heritage context [1], I was struck by how much heritage was specifically expected to deliver rather concrete outcomes: pride, identity, creativity, social cohesion, mutual understanding, to name but a few (yes, a few of the many). This was set out in project plans, and we were also expected to contribute to the aims of other, non-heritage policies relating for example to culture, community development, and young people.

In early 2011, this became the starting point for my doctoral research, and formed my primary research question: Does interpretation deliver the public benefits of heritage as asserted in policy and legislation? [2] Things naturally shifted and changed over the next five years, and other foci emerged, but now that I’ve finished the first draft of the thesis (yay!) I want to share some of my thoughts around these public benefits, and interpretation [3].

The first observation is that policy doesn’t actually use any evidence to justify its claims about these supposed benefits of heritage. That’s a big deal, because when I went out to ask people at my two case study sites why they valued their visit, and what the heritage meant to them, there was some overlap – but also considerable difference from benefits in policy. It’s one thing if this finding is just a matter of a lack of available empirical research (and that research is indeed lacking) when policies were written. However, since policy rightly shapes practice, the danger is that practice subsequently eagerly focuses on truly ‘delivering’, that is making happen these outcomes, thus potentially twisting for its own (and the policies’) ends people’s heritage and the reasons for which they value it. That is a form of both manipulation and disenfranchisement, which, as far as I’m concerned, must be avoided at all cost when we’re dealing with someone’s heritage – even if the benefits sound very positive, like ‘social integration’.

The other issue that arose for me is that while policy asserts all these benefits, it is not at all clear about the processes through which they are realised. Some policies do acknowledge this, and call for further research (and several writers have highlighted this issue as well). However, the reality is that often such research is not sufficiently enabled, meaning that practitioners continue to apply their familiar tools, albeit no doubt with the best of intentions. My last post talked about communal values, and some concerns around our practices, and it is one such example. For at the same time as policies assert the positive, democratic benefits of heritage, other concepts and ideas remain in place that are not easily reconciled with these benefits. What about, for example, the notion of the constantly changing and evolving nature of intangible heritage created by people as part of their identity, and the idea of inscribing it on a managed list, as in UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage? It is all too easy to feel comfortable behind the shield of the positive benefits and outcomes that are asserted, yet fail to radically question the philosophical suitability of our approaches, and examine their effectiveness.

Policies, of course, are working tools: they are debated, tried, adapted, changed, and changed again to, hopefully, respond to new knowledge and changing environments. They also create the strategic context for heritage management practices, including interpretation. I have spent this weekend revisiting European policies on cultural heritage for a strategic review on behalf of Interpret Europe. The policies provide ample opportunity to showcase what interpretation, even as it stands, can contribute, which is an immensely important step in getting interpretation on policy-makers’ radar – its glaring absence from policy as an important discipline is painful. And yet, at the same time, interpretation as a field must participate in the shaping, and examining of policies of the future. For this, it will not be enough to continue to rely on our existing practices and underlying thinking. Based on the findings of my doctoral research, I believe that it would be a step backwards to merely add the public benefits of heritage as asserted in policy and legislation to the list of outcomes that interpretation can ‘deliver’ (and I’m sure it could to some extent), similarly to how our existing discourse argues we promote (or ‘provoke’) learning, and changes in attitude and behaviour, including appreciation of heritage. We need a radically different philosophy of heritage interpretation, to keep up even just with these policies, and make a meaningful contribution to how they will continue to shape the heritage sector.


[1] This was for Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council, managing Bedwellty House and Park, a heritage-led regeneration project in one of the UK’s most deprived areas. I blogged about the many lessons I learnt there here.

[2] A quick note to stress that I never proposed nor expected that interpretation ‘deliver’ these outcomes in the sense of ‘provoking’ them, or ‘making them happen’. But it seemed the best phrasing, and most suited to wide exploration. And it was. So bear with me and this (somewhat misleading) choice of word.

[3] I don’t think the blog is the place to share detailed findings – bit boring that (and yes, academically self-defeating), but if you’re interested, keep an eye out on my publications page, as I’m planning to submit articles on aspects of my research to different academic journals over the next few months/year. I’ll also let people know via Twitter, if you don’t already follow me @NicoleDeufel.


Read Full Post »

For the past month I’ve been watching the Football (or Soccer, if you’re American) World Cup. Is there anything in this that might help us think about heritage and interpretation? Here are my (utterly unscientific) thoughts – and apologies to those who just don’t do world football:



Enjoyment is a key term in heritage and interpretation discourse. For those of us who like world football the World Cup brings tons of enjoyment. It is the holy grail of sporting events. It’s visible everywhere, it gets people talking who may not otherwise have things in common, and it throws everybody into the same pot. I think it’s this sense of a shared occasion that makes the World Cup so enjoyable. What could we do with this in terms of heritage? Certainly, as European policy points out, there are numerous shared occasions in the histories of our nations. Perhaps there is an opportunity here to think less nationally, and more globally about exhibitions and events? Do we need not only a pan-Wales interpretation strategy, but actually a pan-Britain, pan-European, pan-the whole world strategy?


Mutual understanding

This is straight out of the heritage policy cookbook: what heritage should achieve is mutual understanding. This is closely linked to empathy, something you see a lot in the World Cup. Players and fans alike just know what the other team is feeling both when they win and when they lose. People console and celebrate each other across national divides, as the flood of images show beautifully. It comes back to sharing in one thing – a game – and relating to what the other side is going through. This, it seems to me, should be an easy feat to accomplish in interpretation, not only when people voluntarily travel to other countrys to seek out the other side of a story there, as I’ve found people to do in my research, but also at one single site. It’s part of the ‘balanced story’, tapping into that sense of ‘we’re all the same’.


Inspire Curiosity

This is a traditional interpretive outcome, and certainly for me personally, and many of the people I’ve spoken to, this has happened during this World Cup. For example, I’ve learnt more about national anthems and their histories than I ever knew before – and that includes my own country’s! There was one single moment that inspired me to do so: that spine-tingling moment of the very first game of the tournament when a whole stadium of Brazilian fans sang their anthem’s second verse alongside their team without music. I daresay most interpreters would shudder to create a moment like this – using a national anthem no less! – but this was unbeatable for its emotive power. It was clear what it meant to the fans and their team, and I wanted to know more about that, and their country. This curiosity was sparked by pure emotion and joy in someone else’s identity.



Especially in Germany, inspiring identity emerges repeatedly in policy. Oddly enough, my research over there suggests that interpreters have a real worry about doing this, though. For many academics, too, identity and any identity-inspiring heritage practice is almost a dirty word– they mostly frame it as the base need of an insecure mass that is thus manipulated by (evil?) powers. Needless to say, I don’t see identity like that. And during the World Cup, there was plenty of identity work going on. Ironically, it was most obvious to me when I visited Germany: during the World Cup there were plenty of flags around, something that prior to the ‘Sommermärchen’ of 2006 was unheard of. This is a positive, inclusive identity, that sits happily next to the identity-work of Brazilians, the Dutch, the French. My research suggests to me that it is such positive identity-work that interpretation should enable. The evil lies in trying to suppress it.


As I wrote above, all of these thoughts are simply my observations and not based on any research. I’m sure within sports literature, and some identity research as well, someone has taken some of these aspects apart, and if you know of any articles, please fire them my way. It certainly seems a worthwhile endeavour to look more closely at what is going on here, and what heritage and interpretation may learn from this.


Have a happy World Cup Final!

Read Full Post »

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.


[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

Read Full Post »