What makes a sense of place – and how do you empower everybody in a community to feel proud of, and able to contribute to, where they live and work? And how do you build this sense of place, through strategic interventions – and community ownership?
If you ask somebody who has a stake in heritage, the answer is typically everybody. But when you take that question one step further, and ask who has a responsibility for heritage, the answer is very different – “those with the money and time to do so”, “the active residents”, or indeed – “the Council” or “local museums”. Why is it that we feel we all benefit from the surroundings in which we live, but don’t feel able to contribute to it – and why don’t we feel ownership over making where we live a better place for everybody?
Over the last year that I’ve been working on the RSA’s Heritage, Identity and Place project, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel around the country and explore many towns and cities. I’ve talked my way into the beautiful Doncaster Mansion House (one of only three remaining mansion houses in the country), which is closed off to the public. I’ve had a walking tour of Maidstone, exploring the beautiful architecture and hidden gems that lie behind (or on top of) chain stores and supermarkets. I’ve run a workshop in Chelmsford, working with the local residents to create a coherent story for the City. And I’ve come across fantastic resources, like Rules for a Playful Museum, establishing museums as places of activity and fun, as well as history.
Recently, somebody asked me how this travelling has affected my wellbeing, particularly as we so frequently talk about the connection between place and wellbeing. I felt fortunate to be able to honestly answer that it has made me so much more appreciative for where I live. It’s made me question, go into corners and buildings I never would have thought of, and to look up and around more frequently. It’s given me permission to geek out about historic buildings, and to understand how people are actively shaping their future heritage.
It’s also given me the freedom to ask people what they care about. To quote Claire Turner of Manchester Histories, at one of our recent events, “rather than saying to people we’re going to talk about ‘history’ and ‘heritage’, we say tell us about your passion and what you’re interested in – and you naturally will go from one to another”.
Who has a responsibility for place? Everybody. But we also have a responsibility to help people understand and engage with their local area – and sometimes that means coming out of your comfort zone too, to help others get out of theirs. Things like the Happy Museum Project aren’t conventional - they rely on pushing boundaries and being bold enough to try. And shaping a place means working collaboratively – across borders, teams and communities.
So let’s collaborate, and work together to share lessons, understandings and experiences. After all, we’re making heritage as we exist – so let’s make it meaningful, for now and for the future.
This blog is cross-posted to The Glass-House Community Led Design, in advance of The Glass-House Debate, Place: who belongs here?