Ten reasons for investing in cultural heritage even when times are tough
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
What can heritage stewardship do for communities and countries?
The costs of heritage stewardship are often much easier to define than the benefits and any long term impact. Money for special projects or maintenance programmes needs to be found every year and such budget lines often find themselves a target when public spending needs to be cut. The real cost of such cuts to the heritage budget is often underestimated when the benefits are harder to define, may be indirect, and have an impact over time well beyond the traditional budgetary cycle.
What frameworks exist for understanding the contribution that heritage stewardship can make to communities, countries, regions and the world? The European region has a long track record of both heritage stewardship, innovation and educational outreach. The European Union has been keen to explore the impact of this investment and supported the development of a framework to document the wider benefits of heritage stewardship. This was the Cultural Heritage Counts for Europe project. Carried out between 2013 and 2015 it was commissioned by the European Commission in response to the position paper ‘Towards an EU Strategy for Cultural Heritage — the Case for Research’ presented in 2012 by the European Heritage Alliance 3.3.
This project sought to collect, analyse and consolidate evidence-based research and case studies from different EU Member States on the impact of cultural heritage on the economy, society, culture and environment; with three aims:
1. demonstrate the value and potential of cultural heritage as a strategic resource for a sustainable Europe;
2. raise public awareness of this resource;
3. present strategic recommendations to European decision makers.
It has a potential value well beyond the European region, containing ideas for any heritage champions as they seek to justify the investment in cultural heritage in the austerity likely to follow the Covid crisis.
The report highlighted ten areas.
1. Cultural heritage is a key component and contributor to the attractiveness of Europe’s regions, cities, towns and rural areas in terms of private sector inward investment, developing cultural creative quarters and attracting talents and footloose businesses — thereby enhancing regional competitiveness both within Europe and globally.
2. Cultural heritage provides European countries and regions with a unique identity that creates compelling city narratives providing the basis for effective marketing strategies aimed at developing cultural tourism and attracting investment.
3. Cultural heritage is a significant creator of jobs across Europe, covering a wide range of types of job and skill levels: from conservation‐related construction, repair and maintenance through cultural tourism, to small and medium‐sized enterprises (SMEs) and start‐ups, often in the creative industries.
4. Cultural heritage is an important source of creativity and innovation, generating new ideas and solutions to problems, and creating innovative services — ranging from digitisation of cultural assets to exploiting the cutting‐edge virtual reality technologies — with the aim of interpreting historic environments and buildings and making them accessible to citizens and visitors.
5. Cultural heritage has a track record on providing a good return on investment and is a significant generator of tax revenue for public authorities both from the economic activities of heritage‐related sectors and indirectly through spill-over from heritage‐oriented projects leading to further investment.
6. Cultural heritage is a catalyst for sustainable heritage‐led regeneration.
7. Cultural heritage is a part of the solution to Europe’s climate change challenges, for example through the protection and revitalisation of the huge embedded energy in the historic building stock.
8. Cultural heritage contributes to the quality of life, providing character and ambience to neighbourhoods, towns and regions across Europe and making them popular places to live, work in and visit — attractive to residents, tourists and the representatives of creative class alike.
9. Cultural heritage provides an essential stimulus to education and lifelong learning, including a better understanding of history as well as feelings of civic pride and belonging, and fosters cooperation and personal development.
10. Cultural heritage combines many of the above‐mentioned positive impacts to build social capital and helps deliver social cohesion in communities across Europe, providing a framework for participation and engagement as well as fostering integration.
The Coronavirus outbreak has tested heritage organisations to the limit; but if also creating opportunities. Old models and budgets for supporting heritage have been swept away by restrictions on visitors and the collapse of tourism. Following the crisis, public spending will be under even greater pressure. But it is also a moment of discontinuity. A moment to reflect on how to build back better. That will require imagination, frugal creativity and resilience.
There is a particular challenge for top down programmes to support heritage in that heritage is often local and highly diverse. This makes it difficult for centralised organisations to capture and support such a fragmented sector.
The future is likely to be much more decentralised, more diverse and more digital. Policies that promote all three approaches will empower heritage initiatives independent of size or location, and enable engagement and access in ways inconceivable a few years ago.