Reflecting on the RSA’s #HeritageIndex

RSA heritage index 2015 coverThe RSA has recently launched the first iteration of the Heritage Index in association with the Heritage Lottery Fund.  For the first time it has brought together a disparate range of data outputs which can be categorised according to whether they are heritage assets or heritage activities.  Correlations are then made between them, with factoring for density of activity / asset, population, and weighting according to the perceived importance of the the category type.  The methodology is explored within a short film, accompanying technical report, and data which can be explored through manipulation of the summary dataset in an excel file, or via the web-based visualisations which make good use of spatial data presentation techniques.

This forms part of a larger project which the RSA is working on, looking at the opportunities and challenges for ‘place development’ – of importance in a political and public services landscape of regionalisation and localism and expectation of ever greater value for money for public investment.  The historic environment (to give heritage it’s policy-world moniker) is under pressure, and is regularly flagged as being under-resourced and at risk, so the Heritage Index data is a useful tool in terms of reanalysing and reconceptualising the role of heritage assets within our living environment.  The work has thrown up some interesting initial findings – which at first may seem counter-intuitive, but perhaps when reflected upon, were staring us in the face.  Areas with high levels of heritage assets don’t always have high levels of engagement with those assets, and areas suffering from deprivation with low density of heritage assets to access may actually have higher levels of engagement.  There is of course variability across the country and the methodology can be pored over for what it does and doesn’t do – but nonetheless, it does show the potential for arguments of what heritage can potentially do within communities.

The Index also brings to the fore the use of proxy measures – useful at a time when in Scotland, discussion has come round again on whether the Scotland Performs framework indicator for heritage – the state of Category A Listed Buildings at Risk (equivalent to Grade I in England) – is suitable to act as a measure of the state of the historic environment.  Proxy measures are liked and disliked in equal measure, and care must be taken with them – but it does not mean that they cannot raise interesting analytical results and dialogue – as has happened with the Index.

The publication and commitment to continue to support the development and evolution of the Index is welcome, and I’ll take this opportunity to sound like a broken record (stuck in the same groove for over a decade, since I assisted with the creation of Heritage Counts as an evolution from the Heritage Monitor produced by the English Tourism Council (now VisitEngland)), flagging the need for a heritage observatory function to pull together the large amounts of data and grey literature which can add to the evidence base for the role of the historic environment in society.

A debate was held at the RSA last week, entitled ‘Why heritage is our future‘ to explore issues associated with the Index, and enable commentary on the links between communities and their historic environment.  What was noticeable throughout the debate, which was lively and interesting, was the lack of consideration of heritage organisations themselves (apart from the HLF which was represented at the debate by the Head of Research and Evaluation, Gareth Maeer).  This was surprising to me – having spent much of my professional life working with the inner machinery of conservation agencies, heritage NGOs and policy analysis. Perhaps these organisations aren’t as visible or at the front of the mind of people engaging with heritage as much as we think within community settings?  This is something I need to explore further.

Link to audio recording of the RSA debate on 8th October 2015.
Storify feed of #heritageindex tweets

What do we mean by “cultural tourism”?

I was talking to James Hazell earlier this morning on the BBC Radio Suffolk Breakfast Show about the growth of cultural tourism in Suffolk.  This was following up on the recent launch of the “Look Sideways – East” collaboration to promote this aspect of tourism and leisure focused in Norfolk & Suffolk.  Tourism plays a key part in the growth economy as an industrial / economic sector, and from data published by VisitEngland as part of the annual national survey of visits to visitor attractions, the East of England outperformed other regions of the UK in terms of visitor admission trends in 2014, with a 10% increase in visits.  On a global basis, according to World Tourism Organisation figures published in 2014,  cultural tourism accounts 37% of the world tourism market, and is projected to increase by 17% year on year.

Snape Maltings in Winter – from EADT Article on Cultural Tourism

But what do we mean by ‘cultural tourism’? There are plenty of textbooks and articles which use the term, and alongside the word ‘heritage’ it can be interpreted in a myriad of ways according to activities being described, motivations being analysed, or resources being developed and visited.  From my own perspective, it is fundamentally about the relationships which are formed between a visitor as a person, as opposed to a consumer, and a place.  It encompasses time depth, emotional response, and a complex set of layers of interaction between a person and their physical (built and natural) environment as well as other people (locals) in that place.  It would not be overstating it to suggest that cultural tourism is really about the opportunity to ‘bond‘ with a location and it’s identity – to feel it and for it to have a lasting effect in the memory as a ‘connection’.  There are many triggers which may generate this highly personal response to a tourism activity, from customer service, to interpretation, engaging activities, artistic practices, quality of environment, sense of place, and so on.  Everyone is different, so the ‘sweet spot’ to produce the ultimate cultural tourism experience is probably an impossible challenge, but it is encouraging to see an approach such as the Look Sideways campaign, which is taking the personalised approach of ‘curated experiences‘ which highlight personalised connection opportunities – with people, histories, sights, sounds and locations.

I have the advantage of being a member of the ICOMOS-UK Cultural Tourism Committee which works to understand and promote best practice in cultural tourism, as part of a wider global network which has a Charter for managing tourism at places with cultural heritage significance – but it remains a challenge to properly understand the concept and from an operational point of view to manage in a low key way something as fluid as the unique cultural identity of a place so that it remains dynamic and attractive as a ‘must-immerse’ cultural experience.

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