Is the language of salvation helping heritage?

BEFS Policy & Strategy Manager reflects on the potential damage of the common narrative in heritage protection.

Read any report, research output, press-release, or corporate statement involving heritage and ‘save’ will be prominent. Whether ‘saved’ for the nation, the community, or future generations – you can be certain that the heritage in question is to be made ‘safe’ from the evil it was perceived to be beset by (options for evil forces can include, but are not limited to: neglect, weather, and misuse).

We don’t have the language to explain what is being done to heritage. This is a lie; we don’t have the time to explain what heritage needs. ‘Saved’ is seen as useful shorthand, but it doesn’t enable the more nuanced and detailed descriptions necessary to give heritage it’s full place at the table.

We’ve been so eager (understandably) to get any of the resources available that we’ve convinced those with access to the purse-strings that something needs to be SAVED. It’s a quick ask, it’s an urgent ask, it manifests the concept of loss, and no-one wants that…

So, our quick, effective, asks – to save – have been seemingly successful. The funding has (sometimes) been found; the heritage has been ‘secured’ for the audiences. But such asks have unintended consequences – we’ve reinforced all sorts of notions about heritage. About it being ‘special’ and ‘expensive’ and ‘unique’ and ‘difficult’ and ‘old’.

Suddenly heritage doesn’t sound like it has a role in a green recovery, a just recovery, a socially integrated recovery. Heritage doesn’t sound like it’s your house, your local street, the building your kids go to school in, the town-hall where the library is, the park you walked through on the way to work.

Heritage can sound like it doesn’t offer what communities and politicians seek:

  • skilled jobs, jobs which will support a green transition – adapting and using our existing environment;
  • a growing workforce for multiple traditional skills, unable to be automated – as we repair and maintain what we have;
  • an important link in the materials supply chain – supporting countless other industries;
  • a factor for providing more homes in existing places and communities, as buildings are brought back into use, or appropriately adapted;
  • a resource, energising local communities and supporting local services – through the extensive tourism offer;
  • a substantial focal point for regenerative strategies (high streets and town centres being only some of the story) – continuing the story of our places.

Saving is also a one-time ask, surely? It’s only a bad horror film where the protagonist needs rescuing again, and again.

Just as we’re trying to rewrite the narratives of fairy stories so little-girls don’t grow-up being shown how to manifest a learned sense of helplessness; we now need to rewrite the narratives for heritage.

Is heritage in need of ‘saving’? Or is it in need of resourcing – to prime the pump for the greater benefits that it can provide. It’s not ‘saving’, it’s an investment so our people and places can have the futures we haven’t even dreamt of yet.

Personal thoughts formed through researching policy responses, made more concrete due to the input of many well-informed individuals through the CHERF process (particularly the asks in relation to reframing the heritage narrative); and finally formed into something more concrete after reading a report from a home Nations organisation, where ‘saving’ was part of the current narrative.

Ailsa Macfarlane, Policy & Strategy Manager, Built Environment Forum Scotland