Drawing upon brilliant projects overseas helped us to achieve richer insights into heritage in the UK.
Although our Heritage, Identity and Place work looks primarily at the UK, underneath it lies ideas and inspiration drawn from across the globe. While our feet have sadly stayed put, our minds have been stimulated by a whole host of brilliant heritage projects overseas.
We’ve had lively discussions about Gdansk in Poland for example, which demonstrated how important it is to prioritise community engagement in projects seeking to bolster a place’s heritage offering. By involving local residents from the beginning of a major project to better define and preserve its rich maritime and anti-communist history, Gdansk has achieved extensive local support to brand itself as the ‘city of freedom’. With shining examples like this in mind, we defined the first of our five networked heritage principles to be ‘start with people’.
We have also looked over the Atlantic to the United States. Lowell in Massachusetts is a great example of a place that has woven heritage into its plans for the future. Rather than knocking down historic factory buildings from Lowell’s era as a global textile centre, town planners have made them the centrepiece of a new and vibrant urban district. Eindhoven in the Netherlands has similarly deployed its heritage as a defining feature of its present; drawing upon its luminous history as a major manufacturer of lightbulbs, the city has defined itself as ‘The City of Light’. By showing the potential that heritage gives places to define themselves, Lowell and Eindhoven prompted us to enshrine ‘help make heritage your local USP’ as one of our networked heritage principles.
An ambitious project that could be replicated in Britain is the exceptional Emscher Landscape Park in Western Germany. Combining long-term ambition and vision to repurpose industrial heritage, a coordinated and strategic programme of projects has operated across the entire landscape of the region, from environmental restoration to new cultural facilities. The Emscher project demonstrates what can be achieved when localities with complementary heritage assets think beyond their usual remits – an exemplary example of what our networked heritage principles describe as ‘going beyond yesterday’s battles’.
Emscher Landscape Park, Germany
These examples emphasise the value of sharing learning and ideas across borders, not just within territories. Our work on heritage has plenty to offer those involved and interested in the sector overseas – the principles that we articulate in our Networked Heritage work address issues that are by no means confined to the UK context.
In our report, we urge that heritage should be considered an essential resource that connects people to the places in which they live. To achieve this, heritage organisations need to work hard to reflect and cater to the communities in which they operate, and be creative and inclusive with how they define heritage. This involves seeking partnerships and collaboration in their localities and beyond – just as occurred in Emscher – and opening up decision making processes to local people, as in Gdansk.
It is also crucial that places recognise the potential that heritage has to define local identity. Our Heritage Index aims to detail the range and breadth of heritage, from ancient woodlands to shipwrecks to heritage open days that every local area possesses. By collating over 120 datasets and making data accessible to the public, we hope that the Index will enable people to better understand their heritage, and organise to maximise its potential in the ways that we suggest.
While the Index tackles local heritage in the UK, the thinking it seeks to promote is applicable anywhere. We’re always looking to refine our ideas, however, so please do send us your feedback and any stories of your involvement with heritage projects. We’d also love to hear any ideas for partnerships for future heritage work. Who knows, perhaps a global heritage index could be right around the corner…