People Power: Addressing the Critical Imbalance in the Heritage Sector
– Written by Ellis Murrell
Heritage is changing.
Which is ironic really, considering that the very idea of heritage is to preserve the past as it was, for the enjoyment of the present and the future.
But when I say heritage is changing, I am of course referring to the sector. Even in just the last twenty years, the heritage sector has been undergoing rapid development and restructuring, moving from an industry that put objects and places ahead of all else, to one that celebrates and recognizes the input of its most valuable resource – people.
Although material culture is and always should be a focal point of heritage, it’s only right that lip service be paid to the people that make it all possible. A heritage organization, from the ground up, is built on the hard work and commitment of a variety of groups of people – stakeholders, volunteers, estates management, curation, administration, finance, and perhaps the most important of all, patrons. The moment that society at large decides that there is no longer any value in financially supporting heritage organizations – and if our current government had any say on the matter, that moment would be coming very soon – the whole industry collapses.
Visiting a museum today feels very different to ten years ago. Exhibits which once put the focus purely on descriptions now take the human factor into consideration – cultural significance, circumstances of acquisition, and where possible, authorship. Controversy is anticipated and accounted for – no longer is this a sector which falls back on plausible deniability. As mentioned in a previous write-up, repatriation is no longer an imagined future but a documented reality. Heritage no longer feels like it targets specific audiences, with a wide variety of works and histories representing a diverse range of supporters. Speaking of supporters, I don’t think we’ve ever been so visible in the sector before – volunteers from all walks of life are ubiquitous throughout museums and sites across the country, providing a much-needed human touch to what can sometimes feel like oppressively-other environments.
Conversations are ongoing and wide-reaching. As someone who helps manage the social media presence of a heritage networking group – the London Museums Group – I’ve never seen such a vocal and supportive online community. Professionals and enthusiasts alike chiming in on important modern issues such as accessibility, social impact, and environmentalism. In an online world which can sometimes feel aggressive and stubborn, the heritage sector presents a welcoming and collaborative space where we can all learn from each other and debate issues with civility.
Readers, whether you know it yet or not, you’ll have a part to play. If heritage is going to continue to evolve in meaningful and beneficial ways, it’s going to need your support. There are so many ways to get involved nowadays – volunteers don’t even need to leave the comfort of their front rooms to contribute, with lots of online avenues opening up as a result of the flexibility explored during the pandemic. Heritage Trust Network is one such place, bringing professionals and enthusiasts together to explore new avenues for cooperation and participation. If you haven’t had the time to read about our work yet, please do check out: https://www.heritagetrustnetwork.org.uk/about-us/ and https://www.heritagetrustnetwork.org.uk/join-network-youth-forum/
Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash
This blog post was written by Ellis Murrell, a member of the Heritage Trust Network Youth Forum. There are regular blog posts written by different members of the Youth Forum each month.
The Youth Forum is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Thank you to players of the National Lottery.