Siân Jones: Valuing the Historic Environment

In one way or another, most of my research over the last decade has focused on the role of the historic environment in the production of identity, memory, and place. Through qualitative social research with various constituencies and communities, this work has highlighted the dynamic, iterative, and embodied nature of people’s relationships with the physical remains of the past. At the same time, I’ve become acutely aware of the stark contrast between the forms of value created through these relationships, and the kinds of ‘intrinsic’ value that still largely underpin the designation, conservation and management of specific heritage places. Having also worked with heritage bodies at various times during this research, I’ve become fascinated by the difficult and complex issues surrounding how value is narrated and measured in this area of the cultural sector.

This Cultural Value project investigates these issues through collaboration with four project partners: The Council for British Archaeology, English Heritage, Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. The overall aim is to explore how forms of value are created through people’s relationships with the historic environment, and how the heritage sector can acknowledge, accommodate and communicate this. It is specifically concerned with what is usually referred to in the heritage sector as ‘social value’; a concept that encompasses identity, distinctiveness, belonging, and wellbeing, as well as forms of memory, spiritual association and cultural practice. Through a critical review of existing research the project will examine modes of experience, engagement and practice surrounding the historic environment. It will also explore increasing evidence that points of crisis and conflict are particularly potent contexts for the creation of value. The range of methodologies used in existing research and surveys will be critically discussed, along with their application in the spheres of heritage conservation and public policy. Finally, the appropriateness of a conceptual apparatus that tends to quantify and fix values will be examined. The possibilities for capturing more fluid processes of valuing the historic environment will be considered.

As in other spheres of culture and the arts, the question of value is an increasingly pressing issue for the heritage sector. I’m particularly excited about the opportunity to explore this area in the context of the wider Cultural Value project. Initial consultation meetings with this project’s partners highlight just how much overlap there is between the challenges they face and those confronting other areas of the cultural sector. At the same time, the complexity of the forms of value characterizing the heritage sector make it an ideal context to explore some of the wider issues raised by the Cultural Value Project. Different ways of conceiving of value will be critically analysed and contextualized, with a particular focus on how they intersect and at times conflict with one another. The trend towards defining discrete aspects of value and measuring them through particular outcomes will be critically examined and alternative approaches explored. Furthermore, the project will explore the tension between institutional or ‘official’ values, and the values people produce in and for themselves; a tension that is an endemic and difficult issue across the cultural sector.