Social and economic growth stunted by outdated view of heritage, says RSA

By agency reporter
August 11, 2020

The heritage sector should focus its growth efforts on telling the stories of more diverse parts of Britain as it reopens following COVID-19, a new report finds.

Heritage for Inclusive Growth by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, in partnership with British Council, suggests that a new approach to heritage could play a role in rejuvenating communities around the UK.

In the context of post-pandemic recovery, and global calls to re-think historical narratives as the Black Lives Matter movement gains momentum, the report considers a radical new approach to building more inclusive local economies through heritage.

Drawing on a range of case of studies, the report recommends a shift in focus from solely built assets, such as landmarks, attractions, buildings and museums to greater investment in wider cultural and ‘intangible’ forms of heritage, such as community groups, and investments in place and belonging. It suggests these measures could positively impact the economic, social and environmental needs of current and future generations.

The RSA concludes that heritage assets and activities can be vital in supporting local economic development and community wellbeing, as well as helping to achieve other social and environmental goals. These include innovative approaches to curating museums, building community groups rooted in local history, and council-led initiatives to rejuvenate local areas.

Highlighted examples include:

Don’t Settle project, Birmingham: working with several heritage, arts and academic partners across Birmingham and the Black Country, this programme for young people of colour provides opportunities to train as museum curators and gain experience as leaders in the heritage sector. Don’t Settle also includes research led by Birmingham City University on broadening collective understanding of Birmingham and the Black Country, and a commitment by local heritage organisations to rethink engagement with young people of colour.

Rethinking affordable housing in Liverpool’s Welsh Streets: plans by local council and resident preservation groups to refurbish rather than demolish dilapidated Victorian housing have provided affordable homes to the community and built on existing community engagement and history of the neighbourhood. Materials and labour are sourced locally, providing business and employment to the area.

St. Fagans in Cardiff: an open-air museum dedicated to the lives of Welsh people throughout history, including 42 replicas of everyday Welsh buildings, from the Stone Age to the present day. A large redevelopment project involved 3000 volunteers and included collaboration with homeless and substance misuse charities. Local people were offered construction skills and employability opportunities through work placements and apprenticeships.

The report also encourages:

  • Wider opportunities for councils, LEPs, central government and the heritage sector to collaborate to better preserve and promote the UK’s rich and unique histories; and grassroots collaborations to appeal to a younger, more diverse audience often excluded from narrower definitions of national and local heritage projects.
  • HM Treasury to work with the sector to produce better data reflecting the contribution of heritage to inclusive growth. This approach would span the full range of social, environmental and economic benefits of heritage, and encourage investment in heritage for the purpose of building resilient and inclusive local economies and communities.

Becca Antink, researcher at the RSA, said: “The Downton Abbey image of heritage – focused on stately homes and the more well-known parts of our national story – just doesn’t do justice to the rich history and diverse stories across our country.

“In recent years conventional economic thinking has been seriously challenged. Much of the economic growth of the past decade has been centred on financial and urban hubs, without spreading into local communities and the regions. We need to change the way we think about growth, towards an understanding which also recognises social and environmental impacts, and is sustainable and rooted in places.

“Our research suggests that heritage could be a key vehicle for driving inclusive growth and building more resilient and inclusive communities. From Margate to Dundee, there are many examples of local initiatives using heritage to renew local areas. We hope that council leaders and those in the heritage sector recognise the value of using our shared history to create inclusive local economies and communities.”

Stephen Stenning, Head of Arts and Society at the British Council, said: “We are very grateful for the work that the RSA have done on this report highlighting the vital contribution heritage can make to peoples’ lives – through a sense of place, of belonging, connection and identity. It also highlights the important role heritage can and should play as a driver of inclusive growth, re-energising, re-vitalising and renewing communities.

"Now, more than ever, it is important not to dismiss Heritage as a way of asserting a narrow view of history or pointing up key figures and moments that sustain inaccurate and outdated narratives. Heritage can help us explore and celebrate diverse and complicated pasts and it can also inform how we structure a better future. It offers a way of reassessing the local and the global. On a personal note it is great to see the highlighting of my home city of Dundee.”

*Download Heritage for Inclusive Growth here

* The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce https://www.thersa.org/

[Ekk/6]

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.