Is the language of ‘salvation’ helping heritage?

Might the language of ‘saving’ our heritage be ultimately doing it a disservice? Ailsa Macfarlane, from Built Environment Forum Scotland, fears it might…

READ any report, piece of research, media release, or corporate statement involving heritage and the word, ‘save’, is more than likely to feature prominently.

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).

It’s as if we don’t have the language to explain what is being done to heritage. This is not true; more likely, 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 its 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; and
  • a substantial focal point for regenerative strategies (including high streets and town centres) – continuing the story of our places.

‘Saving’ is also an 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 re-write the narratives of fairy stories – so that little girls don’t grow up being shown how to manifest a learned sense of helplessness – we now need to re-write 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 that our people and places can have the futures we haven’t even dreamt of yet.

Ailsa Macfarlane is Policy & Strategy manager, Built Environment Forum Scotland 

A version of this article first appeared as a blog on the Built Environment Scotland website, here, published January 26 2021, for which thanks.

Photo: St Mary’s Scottish Episcopal Church, Dalkeith Country Park, Midlothian. Picture credit: PlaceDesignScotland

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