Essay: ‘only connect’ – the social, economic and environmental benefits of cultural heritage1 Kate Clark

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Kate Clark

Kate Clark FSA FRGS, MIFA, IHBC. is the Director of the Historic Houses Trust in New South Wales. Kate grew up in Australia but spent 25 years in the UK where she worked with the Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust, the Council for British Archaeology and English Heritage before joining the Heritage Lottery Fund as Deputy Director of Policy and Research, dealing with conservation policy and also research into the economic and social benefits of heritage.

Kate has also run a consultancy specialising in heritage policy, practice and planning where clients included the States of Jersey, Sir John Soane’s Museum and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. She has written books and articles on industrial archaeology, conservation, heritage management, sustainable development and the wider value of heritage, including Capturing the Public Value of Heritage. Kate has also done workshops and taught in the UK as well as in Ireland, South Africa, Slovenia, Canada and the United States.


In 2007, a group of black teenagers, some people chosen at random from a Welsh electoral roll, a leading Australian economist as well as sociologists, policy boffins, park managers and local councillors, all shared a conference platform with three government ministers to talk about why heritage was important. At first sight this might not seem remarkable – but in fact it was a rare public political endorsement of the value of cultural heritage.

Whether it is because heritage is often associated with planning controversies, or because so many people see heritage is something elitist, ‘heritage-bashing’ is a common sport both in Australia and elsewhere. It is seen as a barrier to progress, an impediment to the planning system, and an unfair burden on individuals. Inconvenient historic suburbs suddenly become ‘slums’ and historic buildings as ‘carbon villains’. The head of planning in one Australian state proudly described our heritage as ‘nothing but a fart in the desert’, whilst the Mayor of London accused English Heritage of doing more damage than the Luftwaffe.2

It is not just rhetorical destruction – Australian journalist Rob Bevan describes the way in which the destruction of buildings and places of worship is part of the ‘ethnic cleansing’ that accompanies war, and that by removing physical traces of community the victors remove memories and establishes control.

But if politicians do not always like heritage, people do. Ninety per cent of Australians have visited a heritage site and some 95% had engaged in at least one heritage related activity in the past year. About a third of Australians visit museums each year – more than attend live sporting events.

Australians are very clear about the role of heritage in identity, and in the educational benefits of heritage and history for their children. They want to know more about their own heritage and that of others, and at the same time feel strongly that too little is done to protect heritage, and many of them are willing to pay considerably more than current spending levels, to improve that situation3.

The challenge for a heritage strategy is how best to bridge this divide between the high degree of importance that individuals and communities place on cultural heritage and the relatively low political profile – and with it a relatively low level of support – that cultural heritage has.

Cultural heritage also falls into the gaps between arts, culture, planning and the environment, which means that in policy terms it is often invisible.4

Yet there is a growing research base that demonstrates that caring for places that matter and taking part in cultural heritage activities can generate significant environmental, economic and social benefits. Benefits mean that heritage can contribute to wider agendas such as health outcomes, education, the environment and urban planning. But the connection between heritage and these bigger issues is rarely if ever made because that evidence is scattered across a wide range of academic disciplines.

This essay provides some examples of the kinds of evidence that is beginning to emerge about the wider benefits of heritage, as a starting point for better articulating the role that heritage can play in modern society and making heritage more visible.5 It then touches on some of the barriers to better recognising the role of cultural heritage.


For the purposes of this essay, cultural heritage comprises things that we value, have inherited and want to hand on to the future – everything from oral tradition, memory and language, to collections, archives, places, buildings and landscapes. They are the things that we enjoy and learn about by visiting museums, archives, historic sites and parks, and which give identity and distinctiveness to the towns, cities or rural areas where we live.

Cultural heritage is both something that we protect and manage (through the land use planning system, the system of national parks and other reserves and the care of collections and archives) and also something that we participate in and enjoy (through books and other media, through museum exhibitions and programs, as volunteers or as members of local history societies or special interest groups such as rail enthusiasts, through genealogy and personal research, or through other activities). Only a tiny fraction of historic places are museums – the vast majority of historic buildings are places where people live, work and enjoy themselves on a daily basis.

Cultural heritage data is pulled together in the State of the Environment reports, through various Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) publications, through initiatives by the Heritage Chairs and Officials of Australia and New Zealand (HCOANZ) and to a varying degree through State environmental reporting.6

Using HCOANZ data, our protected heritage assets include the 19 World Heritage Sites, 93 sites on the National Heritage list, 338 Commonwealth heritage listed places and 15,235 state and territory listed places. There is no comprehensive data on local heritage places – although in Victoria alone there are more than 150,000 local heritage places.

At the end of June 2008 there were 1,184 museum/gallery organisations, operating from 1,456 locations across Australia which:

  • employed 7,856 people

  • generated income of $998.4m during the 2007-08 financial year

  • incurred expenses of $860.1m for the same period

  • had admissions of 30.7m people for the same period

  • held 52.5m objects in their collections.7

There are around 548 public library and archive organisations. The 8.1m records created by 9,000 government agencies in the National Archives are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of national, state and local historical records, let alone film and sound archives, and family records.

The Collections Council of Australia has estimated that around 73 million people visited museums, libraries and galleries in Australia in 2005-06.8

A lot of heritage is held by private individuals or community organisations. For example, there are around 400 historic vessels in the register hosted by the Australian National Maritime Museum, 583 preserved steam locomotives9, as well as classic cars, agricultural machinery and other kinds of heritage cared for by individuals and by enthusiasts. The vast majority of heritage listed domestic and commercial buildings are in private ownership.

There are also individuals who hold important knowledge; in addition to the speakers of perhaps 150 (often endangered) aboriginal language groups noted in the State of Environment report, there are people with traditional building craft skills such as carpentry and lime mortar, people with memories of major historic events such as veterans, and holders of cultural traditions and stories.

Cultural heritage is also something we participate in. There are around 2.6 million international cultural visitors to Australia each year and 9.3 million domestic visitors to cultural and heritage attractions. In the last year 95% of Australians have engaged in at least one heritage activity including visiting a site, watching a history program on television or attending a cultural event, and 86% have visited a world heritage site.10 There are many more people who live in heritage buildings or neighbourhoods, who take part in hobbies with a heritage dimension such as restoring historic cars or studying genealogy, or who belong to historical or community societies. About 104 million people visited archives and libraries during 2003-04.

People also participate in heritage through festivals, open days and other activities. This year at the 2011 Melbourne Open festival, over 100,000 people visited 75 open properties across the city, and 9 out of 10 of the most visited places were on the State Heritage Register. Around 70,000 people attended this year’s two day Hunter Valley Steam festival, whilst over 94,000 people attended South Australia’s history festival in 2011 including film screenings, talks, events and other activities organised by a wide range of individuals and organisations.

Another important way of engaging with cultural heritage is volunteering. Around 34% of adult Australians volunteer, many for arts and heritage organisations.11

Responsibility for this heritage falls to many different people and agencies, from the individuals who search out family histories, to local, State, Territory and Commonwealth agencies dealing with the environment, planning, the arts, education and social issues, as well as cultural institutions such as museums, libraries and archives and community groups. Due to Australia’s federal system there may be duplications and inconsistencies between Federal, State, Territory and local listings and jurisdictions. There are also thousands of private owners, companies and organisations from the military to theatre companies who occupy or make use of heritage buildings and sites.


It is clear that arts and culture are playing an increasingly significant role in community engagement in health and well-being, in social inclusion of communities of all kinds (including youth, Indigenous, the aged, those of different cultural and geographic origins, and the socially marginalised) and importantly in reconciliation and the life of people in regional communities.12

One of the most powerful books ever written about Australian heritage is Peter Read’s Returning to Nothing – the meaning of lost places. In it, he captures the impact of loss of place on both individuals and communities. Although each set of circumstances is different – leaving a home country, the building of a road, drought or cyclone – the common threads of the impact of that loss on people’s whole sense of themselves is immense. Loss of place is a form of disconnection that is in part a bereavement that has widespread and long term consequences.

Heritage and Health

It is often assumed that traditional culture is the stumbling block to achievement. The Curtin University academic Mike Dockery has shown that the reverse is generally true – that the Indigenous Australians who are happiest and healthiest, with low arrest rates and good educational outcomes are those with a strong attachment to their culture and with a strong Aboriginal identity. The most damaged are the stolen generations, their children and sometimes grand children; the policy of removal has left a legacy that can’t be underestimated. The secret to closing the gap may lie in valuing and respecting Aboriginal culture and in finding ways to promote it to improve lives.13

Our physical and mental health is not simply a biomechanical construct, but something intimately connected with our social and physical context – where we live, who we know and interact with, the relationships that we seek to build, and our cultural links and connections. In public policy terms this is often referred to as ’wellbeing’.14

This connection is something that Indigenous people recognise – the role of country and connections to it is explicitly in Indigenous models of health, for example, Aboriginals in the Northern Territory who maintain those traditional cultural ties and connections with country are healthier than those who do not.15

Although there is relatively little direct research evidence for the contribution of heritage to wellbeing, there are large bodies of research covering the social impacts of the arts, museums and the natural environment, into which heritage often falls. Broadly these studies group impacts into areas such as health and well-being, personal development such as skills and esteem, creativity, cultural awareness and learning and quality of life.16

In terms of physical health, our increasingly inactive society is leading to rising levels of obesity which in turn impacts significantly on public health expenditure. One review of the health benefits of public parks cited just some of that evidence – a regular walk in the park could reduce the risk of a heart attack by 50%, diabetes by 50% and a fracture of the femur by 40%. In Japan green spaces help people live longer whilst natural views can promote a drop in blood pressure.17

Planners in USA and elsewhere are now looking at the idea of ‘walkability’ in the design of new neighbourhoods, after become aware of the health impacts of car dependent sprawling suburbs. The original compact neighbourhood was in fact the Georgian terraces of London, Bath, Edinburgh, Dublin (mirrored in Sydney and Melbourne) where:

For a brief period of just over a century between 1714 and 1830, architects, planners and developers in Britain discovered and perfected an urban form that was cheap to construct, easily reproducible, suitable for a wide range of income levels, adaptable to local physical conditions, aesthetically satisfying, and above all compact in its consumption of space.18

Place and environment can have as much of an impact on mental health as on physical health19; taking part in ‘green exercise’ can lead to improvements in mental health measured through self-esteem, depression, dejection, tension and anxiety. Whilst the mental health benefits of taking part in arts activities including evidence for positive physiological and psychological changes in clinical outcomes, reducing drug consumption, shortening length of stay in hospital, promoting better doctor/patient relationships, improving mental healthcare and developing health practitioners’ empathy across gender and cultural diversity.20

Heritage and Social Capital

Some of the benefits that people get from these activities arise from the social interactions that flow from meeting other people in the process21. The importance of this idea of ‘social capital’ in health and wellbeing has become central to much of the recent research in this area. Roughly defined as the social ties and shared values or norms, such as trust and reciprocity, that facilitate co-operation to mutual advantage, there is growing evidence that healthier and happier people have better social networks.

A study of people who took part in local heritage projects found that this kind of social capital – new skills, new contacts and a new confidence in their own abilities – had grown as a result of taking part in those projects.22 Heritage activities that bring people together, such as researching local history, or undertaking bush regeneration or volunteering in a museum all have the potential to create these kinds of connections and skills.

Heritage projects can change attitudes. The Veterans Reunited Program brought together different generations to commemorate the 60th anniversary of World War 2; participants reported positive impacts including enjoyment, inspiration and creativity (78%) and new skills (39%). Veterans who took part felt more respected (82%) whilst 95 % of the students who took part gained a deeper understanding of the contribution of veterans and – as a consequence – had come to think differently about them.

Heritage and Identity

Cultural heritage also plays a critical role in identity. The link is so strong that throughout history places of significance have become the focus of conflict between groups and even nations, from the riots at the Ayodhya Mosque in India, the destruction of the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia. We all construct identities that are both personal and cultural – personal identities emerge from our individual traits and relationships with others, whilst cultural identities emerge from the groups we see ourselves as belonging to and also from some sense of opposition to those we do not. There are also strong links between identity and self esteem.

The identity of a cultural group or even nation rests on the way its heritage is (or is not) represented, in the buildings or sites it chooses to protect and how they are interpreted, in the versions of history taught in schools. Professor Stuart Hall notes that

Heritage is a powerful mirror. Those who do not see themselves reflected in it are therefore excluded.23

Originally slated for demolition, the Maze prison in Northern Ireland used to house paramilitary prisoners during the troubles is the subject of fierce controversy over its future. Like Robben Island in South Africa, Port Arthur in Tasmania, Auschwitz in Poland and so many other sites, the initial urge to demolish the site and erase a difficult past is often over time replaced by recognition of the validity of the past and the importance of remembering.

In a study of how and why Australians value heritage, respondents strongly agree that heritage forms part of the Australian identity (92%) and overwhelmingly support the view that heritage plays an important role in Australia’s culture (87%). The Allen research also reminds us that heritage places may contribute towards social stability and cohesion in the community and allow a sense of identity either for the whole community or for members of cultural groups.24

However, this does not mean that respondents saw heritage as a unifying factor – they recognized that different people valued heritage in different ways. Australia has a long tradition of immigration and a sense of displacement and isolation is often a by-product of mobile communities. Gasan Hage writes about the importance of the process of home-building for diaspora communities, and acknowledging one’s own history and heritage is often important to people living in a new place. In Griffith in NSW for example, the history and culture of immigrant Italian communities is visible in the distinctively Italian architecture, in a local museum and in local festivals and events that celebrate Italian culture. People turn to heritage as way of both feeling at home in new place, but also of seeking to pass on to future generations a sense of culture and belonging.

Museums often play a core role in this process – either through a public acknowledgement of the history and culture of different communities or by working with groups to discover their own heritage. To take just two of many examples, the Welcome Wall at the Australian Maritime Museum acknowledges the stories of individuals who have come to Australia, whilst the Australian Museum has been working with young people of Pacific Island descent to discover their own history and identity through their Pacific Collections.25

Heritage and Learning

One of the strongest results that emerged from the Deakin survey26 was the weight people gave to the importance of children learning about the past (97% consider heritage education ‘very important’). Australia is currently considering a new national curriculum in which history will play a key part. The thinking behind that new curriculum notes that

Awareness of history is an essential characteristic of any society; historical knowledge is fundamental to understanding ourselves and others, and historical understanding is as foundational and challenging as other disciplines. History ... provides the means whereby individual and collective identities are formed and sustained. It enriches the present and illuminates the future.27

Museums and heritage sites are also important sources of out of classroom learning:

Students’ interest and enjoyment of history can be enhanced through a range of different approaches such as the use of artefacts, museums, historical sites and hands-on activities.27

This is supported by 85% parents who believe that visits to museums should be part of the new national curriculum.28 Despite increasingly tight school budgets and the complexities involved in organising school excursions, some 1.35 million students visited national museums to study history, biology, physics and chemistry, English, civics, arts, geography, languages and mathematics and many other subjects directed at all stages of the school curriculum as well as tertiary audiences. Cultural institutions are also moving into life-long learning – the formal and informal ways in which we develop new knowledge throughout life through programs for older and younger audiences.

Of course many museums are scholarly research institutions in their own right. In 2008-09 there were over 500 research projects underway in Australia’s major museums, and museums participated in 267 grant funded research projects. The recent Commonwealth Strategic Roadmap for Research Infrastructure acknowledges the primary role that museum collections (including artefacts, images, sound recordings, documents, films, animals, insects, plants and geological samples) can play in research, noting digitisation can provide, access for remote, regional and global communities and new opportunities for diverse research disciplines (and that)…. the range of disciplines that would benefit from this is vast, including biology, environmental science, ecology, zoology, humanities, arts, social science and health sciences.

Heritage and Civil Renewal

Finally, there can be political benefits to engagement in heritage and the arts. In the UK voting, political party membership and confidence in the political system has been in steep decline. The idea of civil renewal recognises the need to encourage and support awareness and participation in local decision-making and wider civic and political engagement. IPPR looked at the contribution that cultural participation can make to civic life, and found that countries with higher levels of cultural engagement had higher levels of social and institutional trust, and that people who participate in cultural activities are more likely than the average citizen to believe that other people are fair, helpful and can be trusted and to have trust in the police, legal system, politicians and parliament. They also argued that arts and heritage organisations need think about whether they should be doing more to boost active involvement and to create opportunities for people to get involved, rather than simply be ‘viewers’ or listeners.29

In conclusion, cultural heritage plays a critical role in who we are, how we see ourselves and what we teach our children. It contributes to our personal mental and physical health, and – in a way – the mental and physical health of the nation. That being said, much of the evidence for the benefits of taking part in heritage activities is buried in studies whose primary focus is elsewhere – arts, green space, place or environment.

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