Citizens’ participation in cultural heritage

Since about 30–40 years there have been fundamental changes in the notion and societal appreciation of heritage. Ever more historic and lived culture and other resources (e.g. biodiversity) are understood as “heritage” and, at the same time, felt to be in peril. Consequently, the appreciation and value of tangible and intangible heritage has risen enormously. As David Lowenthal observed, “all at once, heritage is everywhere – in the news, in the movies, in the marketplace – in everything from galaxies to genes”. (Lowenthal 1998)

A core driver of this development is the socio-economic transformation of societies and communities. For example, the emergence of post-industrial societies has led to the appreciation of industrial heritage, a category of heritage that did not exist before the 1960s. (Hudson 1996) Meanwhile industrial heritage has become a major focus of regional revitalization as facilities for cultural and creative industry businesses or tourist attractions, e.g. the more than 1,000 sites in 43 European countries presented by the European Route of Industrial Heritage). There can also be strong opposition of citizens to an inappropriate exploitation of historical themes; one example is a planned “Dracula Park” near the World Heritage town Sighisoara in Romania (Jamal & Tanase 2006; Light 2012).

Appreciation of historic places, buildings and sites

Whether or not there is “a future for the past” (Peacock 1997) depends on the level of appreciation of societies of the historical environment, buildings, monuments and other sites and the objects held and presented by heritage institutions.

As various surveys show, the appreciation of heritage values is generally high. In the first “Taking Part” survey of the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS 2007) over 90% of the respondents thought that when improving local places it is worth saving their historic features. A representative survey in Germany found that 88% of the respondents preferred conservation of historic houses to building new ones, only 5% wanted new buildings, 7% were undecided. ( 2006)

According to Eurostat figures for the EU-27, in 2006 across the age groups 25 to 64 years old on average 45% visited a cultural site at least once in the last year, 71% among the people with a high educational attainment, though only 24% of those with a low attainment. With 69.9% the average figure of the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) for 2005/6 (age groups 16 to 75+ years) was much higher, and increased to 72.7% in the latest survey. 30.5% of adults reported at least three or four visits to a heritage site. (DCMS 2013)

As a study on the role of museums and galleries in the UK put it, “there are over 42 million visits each year to major museums and galleries. It is more than attendance at the Premiership League plus the whole of the rest of league football for 2004–05.” (Travers 2006)

Appreciation of cultural diversity

The richness and diversity of culture is arguably one of Europe’s most important assets and an important source of its creativity and innovative potential. (cf. KEA 2009) Europe’s historical legacy is embedded in the tangible and intangible heritage (e.g. cultural landscapes, built heritage, paintings, literature, music), which enriches people’s quality of live, inspires unique creative products (e.g. Italian or Scandinavian design), and attracts millions of tourists to Europe.

Common history and heritage inform current cultural values and aspirations. In a special Eurobarometer (67.1, 2007) survey on “European Cultural Values” (EU-27),

  • 88% of the respondents agreed that “culture and cultural exchanges can play an important role in developing greater understanding and tolerance in the world, even when there are conflicts or tensions”;
  • 77% said that the statement “the richness of European culture comes from its long history shared by European countries” matches fairly or very well their view, and
  • 76% the same for the statement “It’s the diversity of European culture that sets it apart and gives it its particular value”.

The UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (2005) emphasises the value of cultural diversity and that dialogue among cultures strengthens mutual understanding and respect for each other’s values. Yet, what usually works well with contemporary cultural expressions (e.g. modern popular music) is more difficult to achieve with cultural heritage.

Heritage relates to the cultural identity of people that share a common history, a territory in which they live (or their ancestors have lived), symbols and traditions that are cherished, etc. Therefore conscious interpretation and communication of the heritage values of cultural sites and museum objects is required, involving members of the cultural heritage community.

Citizens’ participation in communicating cultural heritage

Citizens do not only appreciate cultural heritage, many also want to participate in projects, as shown by the high level of volunteering in the sector. (Europa Nostra 2011) One example from our case studies is the UK Soundmap project of The British Library. In this project “crowd sourcing” allowed to create a digital collection of how the UK “sounded” in the years 2010/2011. Only few of the contributed recordings had to be excluded, mainly because they may have raised copyright issues or were of very poor audio quality. The editor of the UK Soundmap notes that “the low rejection rate underlines the great effort and goodwill shown by the contributors towards the project”. (Rawes 2011)

The Internet, social media and mobile technologies clearly allow new ways for citizens to access, explore and add to cultural heritage content, as well as the forms in which it is communicated. But most Internet outlets of cultural heritage organisations present an institutional, authoritative view of cultural heritage objects and sites. In other words, many institutions lack out in deploying novel information and communication technologies in ways that engage citizens, allow them to share their views and content, and gain added value from collaborating with heritage professionals and other community members.

One major reason is that cultural heritage institutions, particularly, curators of museum and heritage sites perceive it is as a too great challenge to open up to “non-expert” views and contextualization of sites and objects, which might include diverse and conflicting explanations and narratives. Furthermore, there are issues of ownership of content and fears about the public and sponsor perceptions of the institution. Therefore attempts at involving on the Web communities of interest and allowing for non-expert contextualization and interpretation in open fora have been rare. (cf. Ellis and Kelly 2007; Ridge 2007)

Results of the CreativeCH workshop on “Citizen Cultural Participation”

The topic of how citizens can be involved in the communication of cultural heritage has been addressed by the CreativeCH workshop held at the VAST 2012 Symposium (Brighton, UK) on the 21th of November 2012.
Workshop highlights