The revolution in the development of digital tools for heritage practice is only a single aspect in a far wider transformation of the field. It’s essential for heritage managers to understand the nature of that transformation to recognize which tools are merely “gee whiz” gimmicks, which are quick fixes for longstanding dysfunctions, and which are the avatars of a new, 21st century approach to heritage management
For just as in the realm of museum management, where the traditional skills of curatorship and collections management have been superseded by specialist skills in marketing, branding, public outreach, and fundraising, the heritage community is itself entering an era in which deep historical knowledge and skill in physical conservation, although essential, are simply no longer enough.
What are the challenges that heritage managers will have to address? The short answer is that they will have to tackle issues of economic, environmental, social, and cultural sustainability in a rapidly changing world. Gone are the days when heritage managers oversaw unchanging and neatly fenced islands of purified pastness. They must now conduct their work in the midst of a fast-moving, thoroughly commercialized, multicultural society.
Heritage as Part of the Global Present
Heritage managers will need new tools to successfully and sensitively integrate historic architecture and archaeological sites into the market economy. Reliance on generous funding and private philanthropy is a precarious but necessary survival in light of severely diminished public funding for culture and the rising expenses of conservation activities.
They will need new tools to enable ever greater risk preparedness and disaster recovery with the rising sea levels and ever greater weather volatility of global climate change and other catastrophic natural and man-made events.
New tools are needed to monitor the effects of intensifying urbanization, deindustrialization, and shifting real estate values. Urban planners and heritage professionals alike must cooperate in monitoring the social impact on heritage resources of historic districts and gentrification in the cities– and of depopulation and industrial agriculture in rural areas.
New tools will be needed to encourage intercultural communication at heritage sites, in light of the unprecedented scale of migration and diasporic populations. One interpretive size certainly cannot fit all.
Above all, heritage managers will need to understand the underlying conditions and character of heritage in the 21st century, in which cultural relevance and economic sustainability will be no less important than expert opinions about historical significance and physical authenticity.
Heritage “Process” not Heritage Site
Long ago archaeologists learned the importance of understanding “site formation processes,” a concept introduced by Michael Brian Schiffer to refer to the natural forces and human activities that continuously shaped the physical character of an archaeological site.
Formation processes have an analogue in heritage sites– not only or even primarily with regard to their physical conservation. The processes of discovery, commemoration, visitation, commercial exploitation, and local community engagement are all factors in the life of a site. Managers must learn to use social science methods to anticipate and plan for change.
The idea of “managing change” has come under criticism from some traditional heritage experts. Their contention is that historic preservationists must remain true to the ideal of preserving the inherent physical authenticity of sites no matter what counter-pressures there may be.
Yet 21st century heritage managers can never succeed in holding back the enormous forces of change, adaptation, and reinterpretation that characterize our globalized world. Heritage is part of the changing present and can be a creative force for widened cultural inclusion. Conservation is not a zero-sum game.
Managers: Neither Soldiers nor Showmen…
“The increasing involvement of society as a whole with heritage means that it is no longer, if indeed it ever was, the preserve of academics and antiquarians,” notes the 2013 UNESCO manual on Managing World Cultural Heritage.
“Nowadays, communities are increasingly involved in their heritage. Cultural properties have important social and economic functions and some continue to maintain strong links with communities with added tangible and intangible expressions of value” (p. 22).
The manual goes on to argue that there is currently a wide difference of opinion between those who believe that conservation of monuments is a self-evident and self-contained goal– and those who believe that heritage must be primarily seen as an effective engine of local economic development.
At present there are digital tools that serve both ends of the spectrum. Conservation can now rely on a range of monitoring, mapping, and remote imaging applications. Development (certainly in the realm of cultural tourism) is widely promoted by a range of interactive multimedia installations, immersive and 3D visualizations that promise every visitor an edu-taining experience.
Who will dominate the future? The emerging practices of heritage management will have to balance physical conservation with ever-greater public engagement. The Future generations of heritage managers will have to know (and apply!) an ever-widening range of economic, ecological, and sociological methodologies. They will have to be sensitive to the changeable nature of heritage– not only as a fragile collection of fossilized remnants of bygone ages or lucrative tourist attractions, but as the focus of evolving collective memory.
How they will do it and how will heritage itself be affected? A great deal will depend on the new digital tools that are emerging today.
Putting Your Finger on the Pulse of Constant Change