A Sociologist’s perspective on the Value of Heritage and the Challenges in the Decision-Making Process

As a sociologist I am interested in the ways in which people perceive their lived environment and the impact this has on their identity. The built and natural environment within which people dwell is an important factor in maintaining peoples’ sense of place and their physical and emotional well-being. Within this, people expect and indeed deserve to have a built and natural environment that provides public services, businesses, and public spaces that supersede functionality, but contain an intangible aesthetic that enlivens and enriches their sense of place to provide a basis for their identity. Much planning history in the UK has been orchestrated by architects, designers, and local and regional authorities whose vision is often alien to the people for whom it is designed to benefit. This has meant that towns, villages, and cities have been designed upon people rather than in dialogue with their interests and desires. Therefore, many people feel that the places designed for them to live and work lack integrity, emotion, and a deeper understanding of the ways in which they live their lives. In addition, residents and communities have felt the often negative and unintended consequences of otherwise well-meaning planning decisions. Think of tower blocks and housing estates designed to perpetuate community that inevitably became sites of crime and fear for many residents. Underlying a good deal of planning decisions is a sense of paternalism where the professionals know what is best for the people that are to live and work in their designs. This signals an inequality in the power to influence decision making in terms of planning, but where does heritage figure in all of this?


Heritage has conventionally been viewed as the way in which elements of the past are preserved and conserved so that examples of past successes and failures can withstand the test of time. In the UK context ‘heritage’ emerged as a way in which elites could ensure that the monuments and artefacts signalling their power and values were to be preserved in the face of revolution and social unrest. Traditionally then, heritage has been a small ‘c’ conservative ideal to protect the tangible aspects of the past from being re-evaluated, re-articulated, or at worst destroyed by the masses! But is this really so true today and does it mean that there is not a more universal and enlightened role for heritage in the contemporary context? My sociological research to date tells me that there is certainly more to heritage than the preservation of elitist notions of value, and that ideas of the past are central to the way many local communities articulate their identities in an ever globalising world. What has become of interest to me in this respect is the plurality of sites that individuals and communities use to signify their heritage, and the plurality of meanings attributed to places by different groups of people. I’m always reminded of the decision to retain and renovate the Gasometers in East London. These icons to Victorian industry fell into disrepair and were due for demolition; however, their presence on the local landscape as a means to identify the area from afar or as a common sense means to locate oneself in the area meant that they were cherished by local residents. The power of the local attachment to what are essentially storage containers for fossil fuels was enough to convince local decision makers that they should be preserved and the values invested in them by locals respected. They are now key sites for urban sightseers from across the globe – the meanings, local, national, and global, are entirely different from the functional principles embedded in their original purpose. Heritage is then less about the meanings and values of the past, it is a way for us to use how we think and feel about what’s in the present to be taken into the future. Value is something not inherent in old things, but something that can be realised in the future if we find an anchor for it in the present.


This rather romantic articulation of heritage is not without its challenges. I see four main challenges that emerge from this perspective that inform my own understanding of how decisions over heritage should be made. The first is that, whilst it is an attractive idea to put the users of the built and natural environment in the driving seat of decisions it does obscure the vitally important role that professional architects, planners, and custodians of heritage play in planning sustainable environments. Much like bureaucracy in general, these roles are there for a very real reason despite those outside of them viewing them with indifference, cynicism, and often contempt! I don’t see decision-making in this context to be a matter of two groups with divergent interests and unchangeable power dynamics – I view them as a possibility for dialogue and an exchange of perspectives, for what planners may lack in local understanding they make up for in their institutional and historical know-how and vice versa with lay people.


The second challenge is perhaps more contentious and difficult to prescribe a solution for in advance. The challenge is that whilst my general perspective on heritage encompasses plurality and diversity there is not often an even playing field between divergent perspectives. This is especially true where elements of heritage are desired to be preserved due to an historical association with the ascendency of one group over another, or when one group wishes their values of a particular site to remain dominant over all others. These can especially be true for sites that mark Britain’s imperial past, for some these may be nostalgic reminders of triumph over adversity, for others they may mean the domination and colonisation of their ancestry. This is where heritage can become explicitly political, but this challenge should be embraced and not circumvented and obscured. For heritage to play a vitalising role in local communities it needs to be inclusive, open, and democratic. A fundamental outcome of this democratisation of value is that it will sometimes be messy and wrought with argument. I would argue that a life devoid of challenge and argument is a boring life not worth living! If we are to be passionate about heritage we must embrace the contentious and emotional ways people engage with it in decision-making. It is in doing so that we enact a liberal, tolerant, and inclusive society.


The third challenge is how we can ensure that marginal and minority voices are recognised within heritage decisions. Heritage is important in this respect because it can play a legitimating role for values and identities that have been hidden or have been marginalised over the course of national and global history. A great example of the ways in which heritage has opened up to non-traditional voices is through celebrations like Black History Month or Notting Hill Carnival. Whilst these are very well known and obvious examples they have created a space within which the identities that were subject to British history have been able to define themselves in their own terms. As commonwealth migration has become a historical fact rather than an aspect of immediate social relations, the possibility to incorporate identities historically viewed as ‘outside’ British identity have finally come home to roost. This is also notable in the Museum of London, where oral histories of migration and urban unrest, characteristic of the 1960s – 1980s is represented not simply as an ‘other’ history, but central to British history and identity – and represented as such in their permanent exhibition of the Story of London. As already established, heritage holds the potential to be polysemic, in that it can signify a plurality of meanings, in this way it can be as inclusive as we make it – it’s not just about the incorporation of commonwealth migrants from the Caribbean its about East African Asians, Irish migrant labourers, refugees from the 1956 uprising in Hungary, Afghan refugees, and the myriad of other migrants all of whom have their own meanings and values of what is important about their particular story and the ways in which it relates to the fabric of the built environment in which they now dwell. Furthermore, there is an opportunity to continually build upon Britain’s rich tapestry of migration to include all groups and individuals into the heritage paradigm who for whatever reason, intended or out of necessity, find Britain their home.


In this regard, the final challenge also extends upon my concerns raised in the second challenge, which is how do we confront ideas that may counter a liberal, tolerant, and multi-cultural idea of heritage? These are ideas that seek not simply to respect former glory, but to resurrect it as an antidote to what they view as ‘reverse colonisation’. This is a very difficult problem with which to engage, but not a difficult problem to counter. It is about being explicit about the rules of toleration and inclusivity, whilst the values of history may be many and plural, they do not extend as far as a moral relativity. It is through making decisions about what constitutes heritage in an inclusive dialogue that helps sustain these rules and ensures that ideas that value extreme intolerance through jingoism and chauvinism are not valued in the present and therefore play no role in our collective civic future.


I began this piece from the perspective of a sociologist and I would like to end with what heritage does to the sociological imagination itself. For many, scholarly endeavour is a passive activity that takes place outside of the society from which it is manifest. However, through an interest in heritage – in terms of its meanings and practice – it becomes a way to re-socialise scholarly activity and to engage with society in a way that promotes citizenship, inclusivity, a better understanding of the present, and a more nourishing future for all…It is therefore a means by which sociologists can be both scientific and normatively engaged with the wider society.


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