Heritage and Identity: Thoughts from the Chairman of The Alliance
Loyd Grossman Chairman of the Heritage Alliance explains why the Alliance’s latest debate on heritage and identity was held at Newcastle University in the North East and gives his opinion on the most powerful.
We hold these Heritage Debates because we want to stimulate new thinking on the benefits of our heritage to us all and so far we have explored the following topics:
- Heritage & Tourism,
- Heritage & Television
- Heritage & Profit
- Heritage & Philanthropy
- And now, Heritage & Identity
We sometimes find that the outcomes of academic research do not always reach the public policy audiences for which they are intended. Our aim is to hold events that bring together researchers working on heritage issues with people working in the heritage sector. It is part of our communications remit.
These debates help transmit new ideas, to ensure that the new perspectives generated through research are understood by those formulating policy and practice in relation to heritage, and that the major challenges facing the heritage sector are understood by researchers.
Understandably, we have been focussing on the economic benefits of our heritage for the past few years. But more and more, policies in the run-up to the election are looking at ideas around individual well-being and social cohesion.
Yet the body of research of how heritage contributes is relatively underdeveloped in this area. There is less agreement about how the individual impacts of heritage contribute to concepts like social capital, community cohesion, social inclusion and civil society.
We believe that heritage can be used positively in helping government achieve many of its goals. Heritage can be a significant focus for local communities, helping to bring people together, to define local identity and to foster a new understanding of ourselves and those around us.
Identity in global terms is already well recognised:
The connection between identity and places is well borne out by the importance of heritage to the tourism industry. Heritage is part of the UK brand. In 2013, the UK ranked 5th out of 50 in terms of being rich in historic buildings and 7th for cultural heritage (National Brand Index), a 3rd in Overall Brand Ranking in 2013.
For businesses, the historic environment creates distinctive, enjoyable and successful places in which to live and work. Businesses occupying listed buildings are found to be more productive than those in unlisted buildings. The historic environment can be as important as road access in deciding business location.
There is of course also a downside. Heritage has sometimes been used and abused in framing identities. Plenty of nationalist states have polarised their citizens by citing historic symbols in support of their political views.
In the Scottish referendum, heritage was used by both the Yes and the No campaigns to support their cause. Historic Scotland hoped to keep their sites neutral but inevitably Bannockburn and Stirling Castle were used to invoke all the historic connotations.
Scotland and Wales today may feel more Scottish and Welsh than they did ten years ago. Yet in England, people may not find it as easy to distinguish what it is to be English.
Regional and local identities are perhaps less contentious.
One thing our heritage allows us to do very well is to recognise regional diversity and differences. A place-based sense of belonging allows us to define identities through civic rather than ethnic identities.
So what better place to come together to discuss heritage and identity than the North East?
That is why in association with this debate, we asked, in association with the Newcastle Journal,the debate attendees, Journal readers, North East MPs, these four questions:
- What is the most powerful symbol of your constituency or neighbourhood?
- What is the most powerful symbol of the North East (Durham, Northumberland, Tyne & Wear, Cleveland)
- If you had to describe the North East in 3 words what would they be
- What characteristics do you think make up a true Geordie.
My own thoughts on these questions are the following:
If I, an American by birth, were asked to say the most powerful symbol of the North East, I would have to have three, all very powerful, visual images:
- Durham Cathedral, a World Heritage Site, is one of the great buildings of Europe, it puts the North East in a European and world wide context where it belongs.
- Hadrian’s Wall, another Word Heritage Site, because that feeling of being a frontier is still important, psychologically as well as historically.
- The Newcastle bridges as a symbol of regeneration and of connecting communities, showing that a city like Newcastle can survive the rise and fall of major industries and still demonstrate that phoenix quality that all great cities have.
And if I had to describe the North Easterners – I wouldn’t dare bundle them all together as Geordies – in three words, I’d say:
Whether or not you agree with me, I have remarkably strong opinions, stronger than, say I would, if you asked the same question for the South East.
So I wonder, how safe is the North East’s cultural heritage and identity. In ten years’ time will the North East have kept its heritage. Is an industrial past more resilient in terms of its striking visual images? Or is its future more at risk than an area with more classic heritage architecture.
If we agree that there is a strong contemporary regional identity here, how has the North East achieved this? Is there anything the North East can teach us about the connection between protecting and preserving heritage and that feeling of belonging?
And if you have strong views on this topic or any other heritage related issues, we would be happy to hear from you via email email@example.com.
I look forward to seeing you at our next events.