How should heritage decisions be made?

Networked Heritage

Gareth Maeer, Head of Research & Evaluation, Heritage Lottery Fund

All communities are imagined. Geographic dividers help our minds to segment – a road, a river, a mountain range – but our attachments to ‘place’ spring from the connections we all make between heritage, identity and place. Beneath all the bluster, the blizzard of competing statistics and the economic projections, the claims and counter claims about sovereignty and controlling our own destiny, isn’t the European debate really one about an imagined community? Europe is an idea – so is the nation state and so is a neighbourhood.

And that’s one of the many reasons why decision-making about heritage – the whole messiness in conversations about importance, value and change – are so endlessly fascinating and so important. And is why a research project that’s prepared to state boldly that “the democratic impulse of heritage lives through constant living, action, questioning and contesting” – that we shouldn’t be aiming to ‘unstick the sticking points’ in decision-making, nor to render it more streamlined or efficient – is a great help.

I work for a national funder, an adjunct of a national government, where our funding often sits alongside other national and sometime European pots of money. Yet my personal inclinations – like lots in the heritage and community worlds no doubt – are towards localism. It’s why I was interested to initiate a project on ‘Heritage, Identity and Place’ that we have been running with the RSA over the last two years, and that looks at how heritage should feature in the current moves towards greater devolution. Devolution, it seems to me, is an exciting idea precisely because of the way it opens up the potential for more voices in decision making.

That research is complete now. And the touch phrase we’ve come up with to summarise it is, ‘networked heritage’ – a shorthand for the idea of heritage connected to social goals, heritage that is community inspired and with a prominent role for ‘DIY heritage activists’.

The ‘How should heritage decisions be made?’ project was running parallel to the Heritage, Identity and Place research for quite a while – and worked as a valuable reference point for me, personally, during that time. It gave succour and inspiration in equal measure – other people seeing messiness as useful, blocks on decision making as powerful, networks not hierarchies as a force for change. Inevitably we’ve come up with our own ‘principles’ for networked heritage – to be revealed soon. When they are I hope the researchers involved in ‘How should heritage decisions be made?’ will recognise the influence of their own thinking – act, connect, reflect, situate – in there too.

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