Loved but ignored: New research reveals how the UK is failing to get the most out of its heritage

    Royal William Yard, Plymouth. The former naval yard has been sympathetically transformed over the past decade to become a premier destination, and has been called a 'cultural hub'.
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    The UK’s heritage assets remain largely untapped by local authorities and could play a much greater role in helping their area thrive and succeed as a place, according to the new report launched today by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).

    Sherlock Holmes Museum, Baker Street (where else?), London - much visited home of the fictional sleuth. Copyright Sherlock Holmes Museum
    Sherlock Holmes Museum, Baker Street (where else?), London – much visited home of the fictional sleuth. Copyright Sherlock Holmes Museum

    Commissioned to inform the debate at Heritage Exchange, a new thought leadership event organised in partnership between the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and the RSA, the report warns that many local leaders disregard the potential offered by local heritage when developing their local area’s economic, cultural or social strategies.

    Woodbridge working tide mill, the last commercially working tide mill in the UK, restored to working order. Copyright SPAB
    Woodbridge working tide mill, the last commercially working tide mill in the UK, restored to working order. Copyright SPAB

    Despite some heart-felt enthusiasm for the history and the identity of their places being expressed by local leaders, this is rarely made manifest in a robust local heritage strategy, the report found.

    Broseley Pipeworks, an abandoned factory preserved just as it was during its last operational days -  one of the 10 Ironbridge Gorge Museums, Shropshire. Copyright: Ironbridge Gorge Museums
    Broseley Pipeworks, an abandoned factory preserved just as it was during its last operational days – one of the 10 Ironbridge Gorge Museums, Shropshire. Copyright: Ironbridge Gorge Museums

    The RSA concluded that rather than base local strategies on superficial ‘famous dates and people’ approaches, heritage organisations should play a more central role in ‘place shaping’ and developing a strong local identity that promotes the general well-being of a community.

    Swansea Marina / Maritime Quarter
. © Crown copyright (2006) Visit Wales, all rights reserved
    Swansea Marina / Maritime Quarter
    . © Crown copyright (2006) Visit Wales, all rights reserved

    Currently, heritage is not treated as a strategic resource, with civic leaders failing to grasp the real worth of heritage assets, and lacking clarity about how to best implement local policy or best engage the heritage sector (comprising public, private and voluntary sector).

    If heritage, including assets, ideas and people, were to be given a greater and more serious standing in local strategic conversations then the ‘identity gap’ we have found at the heart of place-shaping might start to be filled, the report said.

    Commenting on the pamphlet, chief executive of the RSA Matthew Taylor said: “The UK’s heritage is much-loved but its immense value is being ignored. If leaders don’t assess heritage assets, find it hard to describe what they are and don’t know who best to talk to about them, it’s hardly surprising that their heart-felt enthusiasm for the history and identity of their places is not manifest in a convincing local heritage strategy. The challenge for local authorities is to raise their sights from protecting history (although this is vital) to the possibility of heritage being at the heart of the conversation about a place’s future. The heritage sector too should develop an understanding of wider place challenges, and be willing to engage in hard choices about which aspects of heritage are the strongest in terms of local identity today and tomorrow. The sector must also begin to convincingly argue that what it is holding out is not a begging bowl but an untapped asset.”

    The RSA and HLF will bring together for the first time a range of high profile heritage leaders and thinkers on the 14th and 15th July to debate the challenges and opportunities facing the sector. Heritage Exchange will draw on both UK and international perspectives to think creatively about how to better shape decision-making, how to stimulate new mind-sets and create fresh business models.

    Commenting on the event, Dame Jenny Abramsky, chair of HLF, said: “This is a pivotal moment for the heritage sector. We continue to live through turbulent times. We urgently need to look to the future, consider heritage’s role in society and explore new ways of working to ensure its resilience.

    “HLF has now been in business for twenty years and in that time we’ve helped – thanks to National Lottery players – some 36,000 projects across the UK with £6bn worth of investment. We’ve invigorated places and communities and succeeded in getting people involved in the heritage they care so passionately about. But we cannot be complacent. Heritage Exchange is an important opportunity for us to strive for the relevance, growth and enjoyment of heritage now and in the future.”

    Published to coincide with the event, the RSA’s pamphlet sets out to explore the basis for what was termed ‘place based commissioning’, the idea being that heritage organisations and assets could be seen (and funded) to play a more central and strategic role in place strategy. For the heritage sector, place shaping – the building and shaping of local identity – begs certain vital questions; what role could heritage play in successful place shaping? What role does it currently play? And how could we close the gap between potential and reality?

    The report concluded that despite the richness of the concept, the very idea of place-shaping is incompletely developed. The critical issue here is identity, the report said. What does a place mean to its population and in what way can that meaning be articulated, shaped and manifested in ways which ‘promote the general well-being of a community and its citizens’?

    In the context of place shaping heritage is as much about the future as the past, the report found. That conversation, about heritage in the future is one which must engage with identity as it is understand and sued by local people. A significant, albeit tentative, finding from our case studies was that the greater the degree to which communities are involved in place shaping the more central issues of identity and heritage become, the RSA said.

    • The heritage tourism sector, including historic buildings, museums, parks and the countryside, directly supports an estimated 195,000 full-time equivalent jobs.

    • Every year 450,000 people get involved in their local historic environment through volunteering; around five million are members of heritage organisations, and one in six adults has donated to heritage causes.

    • Local authorities are bearing the brunt of the cuts to public funding by the Coalition government, with a reduction of central government support of 40%. Although their provision is a statutory requirement, at least 400 public libraries have closed since 2009, and The Library Campaign claims that over 1,000 will have closed by 2016.

    • Local authority museums, which are not a statutory requirement, and independent museums that are often funded by local authorities, have also suffered. According to the Museums Association, at least 30 have closed since 2010, and a survey undertaken by the same organization in July 2013 found that 21% had cut staff by more that 10%, and school visits had decreased by 31% (MA 2013).

    • Over 10 million holiday trips are made by overseas visitors to the UK each year with 4 in 10 leisure visitors citing heritage as the primary motivation for their trip to the UK – more than any other single factor.

    • Heritage tourism is a £12.4bn a year industry. This is the annual amount spent not just at heritage attractions themselves (e.g. the cost of entrance to a historic site or in a museum shop) but also the broader amount of spending that can be reasonably said is ‘motivated’ by the desire to visit heritage attractions (e.g. visiting a restaurant or staying at accommodation).

    • Domestic tourism or the ‘staycation’ is the main component of this expenditure; of the annual £12.4billion spent on heritage-based tourism, 60% comes from UK residents on day trips and UK holidays.

    • £7.3billion of heritage expenditure is based on visits to built heritage attractions and museums, with the bigger £12.4billion including visits to parks and the countryside as well.

    The full Heritage Exchange programme can be found at: www.heritageexchange.co.uk/event-programme

    Please join in the conversation on Twitter: #HeritageExchange

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