What can Heritage and Archaeology Contribute

Cara Jones, Archaeology Scotland, reflects on what heritage and archaeology can contribute to wellbeing in response to BEFS Annual Lecture 2016.

I will start this blog post with a disclaimer – I am an archaeologist, I am not a planner. I have, however, worked within a large planning department and I have spent half of my career working in the commercial archaeology sector – conducting impact assessments and supporting the excavation of archaeology in advance of development. Heritage and archaeology is often perceived as a constraint to developers and rarely is it linked to contemporary wellbeing (although that is changing). I have worked on many developments where we have had to balance the ‘value’ of the heritage against the ‘value’ of the development. Often the heritage AND the people get lost in those discussions and ultimate decisions.

Yet heritage and archaeology is a powerful mechanism for putting a ‘place’ into context. One key aim of our Adopt-a-Monument scheme is to make heritage and archaeology accessible and relevant to all, by offering opportunities to get actively involved in local heritage. Projects like Women at War, which worked in partnership with Ross-shires Women’s Aid to record a World War Two airbase and research the role of women who served at the site. Participants said that Women at War changed the way they looked at the landscape and heritage in general. This heritage project challenged their perception of what heritage and archaeology can be, and helped them develop knowledge and interest in their local landscape and their local heritage. Participants not only developed a new understanding and appreciation of their local historic environment and the landscape it was situated within, but also developed new skills and self-confidence, which they have begun to apply to other aspects of their lives.

So if engaging with their local heritage can transform and develop an individual’s sense of place, and with that, a sense of their own identity, how can we incorporate this into long term place making which will help towards engaging with disenfranchised audiences?

People know their spaces and places, often much better than ‘we’ ever will. One of my favourite elements of each Adopt-a-Monument project is conducting that initial site visit – meeting the community group and the heritage asset they wish to ‘adopt’. While I have professional training and have accrued specialist knowledge, which can support their project, it is their stories and personal connections which make that place relevant to contemporary lives. My skills enable a project to take place, within policy and legislative frameworks, but it is the community group who decides which tasks to take forward, which stories to tell. Nick Wright quite rightly touched on how better consultation with communities can sometimes resolve tensions arising from planning decisions.

Alex Neil mentioned that we no longer plan, we zone. In my career I have been involved with masterplan developments – these large scale, forward thinking visions, allows for heritage ‘constraints’ to be identified and either mitigated against (i.e. micro-siting around the archaeology) or identified as ‘something that will need to be dealt with’. Yes these plans go out for community consultation, but are the views of key stakeholders really taken into account? Should the community not be involved at a much earlier stage?

A large part of my job is to listen to community groups – what heritage is important to them and how can we help facilitate a project around their passion and enthusiasm. At times we need to reframe tasks, utilise the evident enthusiasm and passion for heritage but redirect it to achievable outcomes. The most important element about our work is that it is community-led, co-designed and ‘co-delivered’. We believe that this approach leads to a more sustainable network of community heritage groups – they feel empowered, entitled and qualified to monitor their sites and speak up for their heritage. They feel a sense of ownership and belonging. Could this approach not be applied to planning frameworks?

Sir Harry Burns was correct in that the public aren’t always able to make informed decisions about planning needs and urban requirements. His example of the new Queen Elizabeth University Hospital Campus was a powerful one – the public wanted smaller hospitals dispersed around the city, but that concept was no longer compatible with delivering a modern health service. Our planning system still needs to be a practical one.  However, I was struck by the comment by the representative from Planning Democracy – that there is much inequality in the planning system. Through our work, we certainly see that. The ability to mount an eloquent and ultimately successful protest of the destruction of a heritage site in advance of development takes skill, specialist knowledge and is often time consuming. These skills are in short supply within some Scottish communities. A more open and accessible planning process may help address this.

I was troubled to hear about the streamlining of the planning process – yes, we should make it far easier for communities to engage with the planning process, but not at the expense of a full impact assessment of a proposed development, however large or small. As we see large scale cuts hit local governments and with that, budget reductions for planning authorities, we feel those cuts keenly in the heritage sector. After all, who cares about heritage when there is no money for more essential services? I feel this is a dangerous line to tread. Streamlining planning assessments could lead to further damage or desecration of the local heritage which matters to that community. In response to David Cameron’s pledge to blitz ‘sink estates’, Sir Harry Burns passionately pointed out that Scotland had tried that in the post-war era and it didn’t work. I thoroughly agree – these examples of built heritage are still just that – representative of a community’s heritage, and if we start to bulldoze heritage, we do not improve wellbeing, we destroy identities.

Years ago, one volunteer remarked to me that their community archaeology project brought together participants from ‘all walks of life’, yet as the project progressed, they became ‘a shared community of interest’. Those words have always struck me as vitally important and again words which can be applied to planning and wellbeing. Alex Neil said we must build communities, not just developments; I agree with this and believe heritage can play an important role in that process. Communities are brought together by commonality and heritage can be one way of finding that commonality – either through a shared past or a shared interest. At a literal level we can look to the past to see how communities and identities are created – both through the theoretical ‘ties that bind’ people together and the physical environment that they inhabit. As we have seen with our Adopt-a-Monument projects – understanding the heritage of a ‘place’ can lead to appreciation, value and in turn improved self-worth, self-belief – attributes Sir Harry Burns mentioned as causes of ‘wellbeing’.

Cara Jones, Archaeology Scotland.