Blog from Katie Childs (Chief Executive, Chawton House) on the future of heritage.
Shared in the lead-up to The Heritage Alliance’s Heritage Debate 2022: Heritage in 20 years.
Heritage in 20 Years: what will matter most?
In uncertain times, it may seem folly to look 20 years ahead, when accurately predicting 20 days hence may give you the confidence of a modern-day Nostradamus. Next year, Chawton House will celebrate the 20th anniversary of opening to the public, and the majority of our staff are in their 20s. As we write the first Masterplan for our historic house, collection and estate, it is that generation who will inherit the results of the decisions we take now, and so their views shape what we do.
Already some of our most imaginative public engagement activities are devised by our youngest staff. They look at a roll of chicken wire, logs from dead ash trees, and old garden pots and, after some internet research and a chat with those who know about the collection, create extraordinary displays, from Gothic Garden Trails to celebrating The Borrowers. At Chawton House we prioritise developing early career talent and in return learn what matters most to them.
This is a generation that does not expect to own a property before 40, for whom higher education equals debt. It is a generation that works hard but flexibly for better work-life balance, that will inherit the effects of climate change, and that values mental health. They embrace difference, are curious about the world around them, and are impressively resourceful. They are storytellers and content creators on social media. On our team, they are fascinated by the lives and works of tearly women writers in our collection, and determined to explore the experiences of those absent from the prevailing historic narrative.
If by 2042 many of our visitors are unlikely to have significant disposable income, it will matter that heritage is affordable. If people are more conscious of the environmental impact of owning stuff, then sharing meaningful experiences and creating memories becomes ever more important. If work becomes more flexible and people seek to maintain good mental health, then the therapeutic nature of being in our spaces – outdoors and indoors – and the visceral power of our collections will enrich lives. It will matter therefore, that we are embedded within our communities, so if people have more time, they will want to spend it with us. If the generation that follows embraces difference, is curious, and wants to tell stories, then collections like ours will matter. It is already important that the stories we tell present a range of perspectives, but I hope after 20 years of investment in exploring often hidden histories, those stories will be even richer, with our collections yielding new treasures.
Chawton House came close to failing in 2017. It was not enough to matter only because the place inspired Jane Austen; we had to matter in people’s lives now and in the future, so we would be missed if we were gone. So, what will matter most to heritage in 20 years time? That we listened to our youngest staff 20 years before.
– Katie Childs (Chief Executive, Chawton House)
Explore other perspectives on ‘Heritage in 20 Years: what will matter most’ over on our event page for Heritage Debate 2022.