Is all heritage local? - RSA

Blog: Is all heritage local?

Blog 3 Comments

  • Communities
  • Devolution
  • Heritage

Political developments in recent months, driven and shaped by the RSA’s City Growth Commission, have accelerated the pace of devolution. A strong desire for devolution emerged from the three kick-off workshops held up and down the UK as part of our current project on heritage. If heritage is going to play a stronger role in shaping how a local area develops, new local powers may be required, flexible to the nature of challenges which vary between places. The combination of these developments, especially in times of austerity, provides challenges and opportunities alike. One suggestion included the relocation of statutory powers over heritage from the national to the local scale.

With the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the RSA aims to initiate a debate about the links between heritage, identity and  place and their role in defining and realising the social, economic and environmental aspirations of communities. 

Our research is focused on the three cities of Bristol, Dundee and Oldham – all three of which have a distinct local heritage that support place shaping and identity building. In addition, these cities are at the centre of the devolution debate: Bristol has an elected mayor; Oldham is part of the Greater Manchester devolution deal (a Combined Authority, with many additional powers forthcoming); and Dundee showed the strongest support for independence in last year’s referendum.

To kick off the work, we ran workshops in each city to help us understand where and how heritage does (or doesn’t) provide a unique ‘USP’ to the  development of these places, socially and economically. The participants were experts in different aspects of heritage from canals to heritage education in schools. We discussed the importance of a wide range of heritage assets, ranging from the architecture to transport and from landscape assets to intangible heritage such as language and dialect. Simultaneously, we ran a workshop in London discussing the findings in the three cities above and how national organisations can provide expertise and capacity to support local places to develop their unique heritage USP.

We generated a plethora of ideas of how their local place can realise their full heritage potential for the benefit of a wide community. The importance of local people and their sense of belonging and connection to local heritage in particular was emphasised. Place based education was suggested to embed local heritage in the identity of people and to keep them engaged in shaping and being their place. The benefits for local communities and people struggling to define their place-based identity is clear. This highlights the need for local approaches to local heritage, especially when national policy impacts on local agendas, and often limits community engagement to a traditional audience of experts. Here it is important to note ‘community’ itself is a contested concept as my colleague Dave Yates has recently argued in his blog.  People, as argued by our participants, should be in the driving seat, contributing, shaping, defining and celebrating local heritage. The question, inevitably, is how ‘local’ are local councils? Do they really represent the community? At what scales do different people relate to heritage?

Resources are always scarce, but the local is more important than ever if communities are to decide which form of heritage can be afforded and which might to be sacrificed as budgets shrink. Furthermore, heritage is not just about what’s already there, it’s also about what’s being created right now. We are building our future heritage today, and this can be a useful stimulus to engage people in what they value about the legacy we’ve inherited from the past.

The long-term health of heritage depends, often, on locally generated solutions. However, the value of an ‘umbrella organisation’ was highlighted by participants; making the broad case for public and private investment to ensure heritage – in all it’s shapes and types - contributes to high-level goals including wellbeing and prosperity.

Throughout June, we are hosting further debates in Bristol, Oldham and Dundee, asking what are the best ways of using s past to realise the city’s aspirations for the future? We will not only engage with local heritage experts, but also community groups, social entrepreneurs and those relevant to the ‘fringes’ of heritage: from property developers to youth workers. We aim to understand the importance of heritage when it comes to strategic investment decisions that shape the city,

One outcome sought from these workshops is to help people from different backgrounds and sectors learn about how others engage with their city from different perspectives. One tool to help do this is a Heritage Index which we are developing at the RSA, layering over 70 data indicators to comprehensively quantify how much heritage – defined as both assets and activities – exists in each local authority.

Stay engaged via our project page below - we’ll share what we learn in these ‘Mapping the Gaps’ workshops, and provide an interactive map of the results generated by our heritage index. 

HeritaGe, Identity and Place Project


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  • Many thanks for your comments Joyce and Bridget. Both of you have mentioned the possibility of heritage being portable and becoming embedded in the history of different places. This is very interesting and is true for tangible and intangible heritage alike. I have posted another blog article which briefly discusses the fluidity of intangible heritage and how heritage originated in one place can shape another.

  • I don't think all Heritage is local especially when you look at a city like Sheffield where some parts of its history is very definitely part of world history. Where would the world be without Stainless Steel. So much of conquering Wild west may have used Birmingham made guns but the tools to tame the wild undergrowth were mainly made in Sheffield. Hence there are clubs & collectors worldwide who collect & research the manufacturers of Sheffield. Yes there is the local heritage too but much of it is hard to disentangle from the world .I am sure people feel similarly in other big manufacturing cities. It is perhaps a certain reticence from the cleaner cities to acknowledge this and it remains left to a few desperate academics and locals to keep shouting our industrial Heritage is internationally  important. Trouble is a Cementation Furnace is not a stately home. You can't lead a tour of it and sell pretty souvenirs and cream teas. So even if it is the only complete one in UK and only 1 of 2 in whole world where there is muck there is definitely not brass. Its hard to raise the funding necessary to explain our industrial history and to hopefully inspire new innovators and engineers if all our heritage is stately homes or children in cloth caps and mob caps.   

  • I think this is an important project - as too much built and natural environment is being lost as people focus increasingly on their own material affluence, and allow politicians, developers and extractive companies to ride roughshod. However, I'm really interested to know whether participants in your enquiry challenged an 'all heritage is local' perspective. I'm thinking of these aspects but there may be more: the importance of understanding global and colonial histories; the importance of tapping heritage of other localities to understand the dynamics and exchanges between places, peoples, other species etc; the fact that many people have a sense of heritage that is not strongly connected to the place(s) they live in; many heritage artefacts e.g. museum collections are or have been portable and may have multiple connections to different places; the heritage related to national or global bodies such as faith groups or science institutes. It would be interesting to take an ecological approach to mapping local heritage which has been affected, enriched and overlaid by multiple and moving heritages and forces for change. What factors really help people build connections that lead them to protect heritage, what factors lead them to neglect it?

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