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Celebrating World Heritage Day: Top 5 insights from the heritage sector

To celebrate World Heritage Day (18 April), we caught up with Professor Rodney Harrison, AHRC Heritage Priority Area Leadership Fellow as well as some of the Principal Investigators from a number of AHRC-funded research projects, to hear about some of the key insights from the heritage sector, which are helping to shape and inform current practices and thinking - in heritage and beyond.

As a Leadership Fellow in Heritage and Principal Investigator on the Heritage Futures research programme, Professor Harrison is keen to bring together different fields and practices to critically explore heritage. He believes that World Heritage Day is important for a number of reasons.

“The observance of a World Heritage Day - or International Day for Monuments and Sites - was proposed by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS)  on 18 April 1982 and approved by the General Assembly of UNESCO in 1983,” he explains. “It aims to promote awareness of the diversity of humanity’s cultural heritage, its vulnerability and the work of protecting and preserving it.”

However, as Professor Harrison points out, “While it’s important to celebrate the achievements in preserving cultural heritage globally, the AHRC’s future heritage research strategy also notes the importance of approaching heritage critically to understand its social and political functions. For example, even though heritage is potentially beneficial in promoting tourism, economic growth and social cohesion, it can also be used to marginalise and exclude certain groups, and often forms the basis for divisive claims to territory, history, and identity.

“This year’s theme emphasises the importance of rural landscapes, which is an area of particular importance to AHRC funded researchers, as exemplified by the recent report on the contributions of the Arts & Humanities to research on the Environment (PDF).”

1. The importance of comparative research and joined-up thinking for the future of heritage

Orford Ness on the Suffolk Coast
Participants in the Heritage Futures cross-programme knowledge exchange workshop visiting Orford Ness on the Suffolk Coast, UK

The Heritage Futures project, which Professor Harrison leads on behalf of a team of 15 international, interdisciplinary researchers who collaborate with more than 25 different international partner organisations, investigates how the future is assembled, curated, cared for, and designed through conservation practices.

“The research programme focusses on how natural and cultural heritage conservation actively resources the future,” explains Professor Harrison. “There has been little thinking in the sector about how it does this, and what kinds of futures it wishes to build.”

The research programme is distinctive in its comparative approach and aims to bring heritage conservation practices of various form into closer dialogue with the management of other material and discursive legacies.

The programme’s four themes of Uncertainty, Diversity, Transformation, and Profusion identify challenges for the future of heritage and look at a range of institutions that tackle them in various ways.

“We have found that although heritage is often said to be preserved for ‘future generations’, there is very little joined up thinking across the sector about the most effective ways of doing this, nor, indeed, of fundamental issues such as when those futures might arrive (10 years? 100 years? 1000 years? A million years?), and how we might determine what kinds of heritage 'resources' those futures might want or need.

“In this sense we have found that despite the focus on sustainable approaches within the sector, heritage management might itself become unsustainable in the future. Nonetheless, each of the more than 20 different fields of conservation practice we have examined, does resource the future in its own particular way, and in this sense each could be said to build its own distinctive futures.

“Our findings suggest the need for more joined up thinking across the sector and beyond to facilitate more innovative and sustainable approaches to heritage management.”

2. Reshaping heritage practices in the context of climate change

Orford Ness on the Suffolk Coast
Durgan village in Cornwall

“According to a recent UNESCO report, climate change poses the greatest risk to world heritage, yet heritage concerns are not as prominent as they should be in this field,” explains Sara Penrhyn Jones, Senior Lecturer in Media at Bath Spa University and Principal Investigator on the AHRC-funded project Troubled Waters, Stormy Futures.

The research team comprising Sara Penrhyn Jones, Dr Bryony Onciul, and Dr Anna Woodham, were keen to explore and act upon the idea of intergenerational responsibility: “It would be a strange omission to research and be active in any of the areas of interest to us: heritage preservation, indigenous rights and representation, social equity… without also acknowledging the environmental crisis which defines our times,” says Sara.

The project considered the challenges facing heritage organisations and coastal communities by focusing on three case studies; Porthdinllaen (in North Wales), Durgan Village (in Cornwall) - both of which are National Trust sites, at risk of increased tidal flooding and coastal erosion - and Kiribati, a low-lying island nation in the Pacific Ocean.

 “What surprised us most was some of the similarity between the different case studies, despite the very different cultural contexts,” says Sara.  

The research team found that heritage professionals are motivated to play a part in educating the public on climate change, but “There was no real expectation at any case study site that heritage and cultural organisations should proactively curate records for climate-vulnerable communities for the future."

The research has also led to some interesting questions. “In Kiribati, there was particularly limited capacity for managing current cultural heritage resources and records, as well as questions about the extent to which an indigenous, largely oral culture could be ‘preserved’ at all outside it’s original, ‘natural’ and dynamic setting.”

3. Inequalities in the arts and cultural sector

Barbican event
An event at the Barbican featured panel discussions and reflected on a new report investigating social class inequalities in the creative industries

Who is missing from the picture? Panic! it’s an arts emergency followed on from several AHRC funded research projects looking at the creative economy, and demonstrates how the rise of the creative economy is associated with increased inequalities of gender, ethnicity, and social class, and suggests ways in which these issues may be addressed.

Dr Dave O'Brien, Chancellor's Fellow in Cultural and Creative Industries, History of Art, at the University of Edinburgh, and Principal Investigator on the project, explains: “There has been a lot of research on the creative sector in terms of consumption and production; and while [this research] is taken for granted in academia, class and gender imbalances are not as well known to practitioners and policymakers.

The aims of the project were to forge relationships with Create London, the British charity Arts Emergency, and the Barbican Centre, as well to raise awareness of these inequalities in the arts and how they operate.

“The big thing (about social class inequalities) is that class is not covered as a protected characteristic,” explains Dr O'Brien.

For this reason, it is not considered against the law to discriminate against a person due to their social class origins.

Dr O'Brien explains that while cultural organisations may have a sense of the imbalances within the sector, they do not have the stats or data to back this up. As a result, one of the questions that arose from the project, was ‘how do we measure this?’

“Our public engagement elements have helped make these conversations on class, gender and ethnicity more accessible, opening up wider conversations and debates, in a more intersectional manner.”

“One of the questions faced by heritage organisations in terms of what do we archive and what do we classify as heritage, is deeply rooted with who works in the organisation. The Glasgow Women’s Library for example has a different approach, and utilises a more radical form of local community engagement.

“We hope that our research will help cultural organisations to think critically, while also giving them the data to aid their understanding of who their workforce and audience is, and what this means.

“It’s not just us three (Dr O’Brien, Dr Orian Brook and Dr Mark Taylor) there are a vast range of researchers in this area, some of whom we have been lucky enough to work with.”

Dr O'Brien hopes that as a result of their work, cultural organisations will be able to question what is the function and purpose of the organisation. Not only will this help organisations think about their displays and how they manage archives, but it will also aid more immediate practical aspects such as whether to include competency based tests as part of the interview process, rather than just looking at educational achievements, for example.

An event at the Barbican, which concluded phase one of the project, reflected on some of the issues raised in the research report (PDF), and was attended by practitioners during the day who were keen to find out about the research and what they can do differently.

“We’ve been part of a broader moment, and helped to put questions of diversity on the agenda, as well as helping to clarify the debate, particularly in times where only anecdotal evidence is being drawn upon, when in fact the reality is very different.”

4. Protecting the loss of cultural heritage to help address exploitation and injustice

Dancing lesson
Rosemay Mandarin teaches girls how to hold their costumes when dancing Chagossian sega at a heritage workshop in Mauritius. Credit: Laura Jeffery

Between 1968 and 1973 the entire population of the Chagos Archipelago was forcibly displaced to make way for a major US overseas military base on Diego Garcia and able to take very few items of tangible cultural heritage with them.

CHAGOS: Cultural Heritage Across Generations was a community engagement and impact project with the principle objective of supporting forcibly displaced Chagossians to transmit, safeguard, and promote their cultural heritage.

“In protracted displacement they have faced social, political, geographic, and economic barriers to practicing and preserving their collective identity and intangible cultural heritage,” says Rebecca Rotter (Co-I) and Research Fellow, Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. “Chagossians are concerned about the very real possibility that knowledge and practices linked to life on Chagos will be lost as the remaining Chagos-born islanders pass away. The actual and potential loss of cultural heritage in this instance is therefore not simply due to change and obsolescence, but is the direct result of historical injustices and ongoing marginalisation.

“The project’s importance lies in preserving cultural heritage… but also in addressing the consequences of exploitation and injustice, helping to strengthen the skills, knowledge and identity of Chagossians of all generations, and bringing a new sense of hope and pride to the community as a whole.”

The project confirms recent trends within the heritage sector towards respecting and supporting the living, changing character of cultural heritage. This is particularly the case for migrant and displaced groups who have often experienced loss of material cultural heritage as well as social and cultural change.

“This project adds empirical weight to the argument in critical heritage studies that heritage is a resource that can be used by marginalised groups to define themselves and seek validation. Formal efforts to safeguard and inscribe intangible heritage offer the possibility of political, social, and financial gains such as increased legitimacy, strengthened communal identity, and funding to allow communities to continue to practice valued cultural activities. However, safeguarding also risks a loss of control over community knowledge and a compounded sense of disempowerment.”

5. Understanding how pasts are reworked and leveraged in the present

Roman dressed people
Roman encounter with the locals at Castell Henllys Iron Age settlement, Pembrokeshire

The Ancient Identities in Modern Britain project aims to study the variable ways in which the ancient past is experienced by people in Britain, situating this understanding in an international context and focussing on the  study of Iron Age and Roman heritages. 

The project is a collaboration between the University of Durham (PI Richard Hingley, CI Tom Yarrow, PDRA Kate Sharpe) and the University of Stirling (CI Chiara Bonacchi and RA Marta Krzyzanska).

“The work that has been undertaken has been key to push a shift in digital heritage research,” says Dr Bonacchi. “The Ancient Identities project has been the first to draw on big data to study the creation of heritages and their values to different people… using bespoke software and workflows developed in-house.

“This is the first coordinated study to assess the ways in which the ancient past of Britain is experienced, interpreted and performed via both online and offline fields. Importantly, we have devised a novel methodology to conduct this kind of research that can be utilised again by others in future.”

The project has provided new insights into the ways in which the ancient past of England, Scotland and Wales is incorporated into the identity make-up of those who live in or pass through these territories today.

Through data mining and analysis of social media, the research has explored how different people have leveraged ideas and materials from the Iron Age to the Early Medieval past of Britain and Europe to frame and express their political identities as well as their political hopes for the future. 

“The study of uses of the past in the context of political activism about Brexit on social media has also had substantial impact, drawing attention on the role of heritage in explaining aspects of people’s attitudes towards immigration, borders and sovereignty that are linked to their ways of understanding the past and their personal and collective identities. 

“The key output ‘The heritage of Brexit: Roles of the past in the construction of political identities through social media’, published in the Journal of Social Archaeology has been reviewed by The Times, the Telegraph, Nature Communications and Le Scienze, helping to open up a new line of enquiry…”.

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