Effective utilisation for whom and how?

On July 22nd the Whose Heritage Matters team took part in an online seminar, organised as part of an AHRC Global Challenges workshop by University College London. The team were part of a panel on the effective utilisation of sustainability and heritage research and asked 'effective for whom and how?'

In focussing on the ‘utilisation of sustainability and heritage studies’, the session encouraged us to reflect on the relationships between knowledge and action and the extent to which academic knowledge can be mobilised to achieve social and economic benefit. Our British Academy funded heritage project emphasises the plurality and contestability of the notions of sustainable livelihoods and cultural heritage. This means recognising that ‘effective utilisation’ is equally contested and has implications for different groups, their relative engagement in the process of research and the roles of academics as intermediaries in mediating between different values.

First, we recognise that heritage is not singular, linear or fixed. Instead there are multiple heritage meanings and values. Second, sustainable livelihoods are often seen only in narrow economic terms. We are interested in how cultural heritage sustains lives and not only provides economic gain. Third, we recognise that different kinds of heritage needs to be valued and that questions of gender and intersectionality need to be more centred in understanding how heritage is understood. Cutting across these issues is an interest in plurality and contestation which underpins the very question ‘Whose Heritage Matters?’

If cultural heritage is plural and contested and we cannot assume a simple linearity between knowledge and action, what does this mean for the idea of research ‘utilisation’?

In our research there is a clear tension between tourism-led economic development, the need for groups to survive in the everyday, and the relative focus on heritage as simultaneously preserving the past and looking to the future. Our interviews with policy officials and creative practitioners in Cape Town highlighted a number of key themes:

•       the misconception that cultural heritage is fixed as opposed to fluid and changing over time and in different contexts;

•       the foregrounding of narrow understandings of the economic dimensions of cultural heritage based on economic data of a few large industries such as the film industry, which does not take into account other aspects of lives and livelihoods;

•       the overstated link to tourism and particularly tourism economies that rely on international elites, which can run the risk of side-lining locally relevant forms of cultural heritage that are so important for wellbeing and belonging of local people;

•       and the primacy of conserving the tangible built environment which runs the risk of preserving colonial heritage over the more intangible and ephemeral aspects to cultural heritage linked to place, nature and socio-cultural practices.

These issues play out in particular sites for instance Greatmore Street, an arts and cultural venue in an area of Cape Town grappling with its colonial past and contemporary issues of conflicting heritage values.

In Seme Kaila, an old hillfort in Kisumu County Kenya, efforts to protect and preserve the site have been underway. However, a key challenge is that the local community, with no alternative income, have been selling stones from the walls to local and international building companies. Kenyan researchers in the Whose Heritage Matters project have been working with the local community to set up a community-based organisation (CBO) to help get community investment in protecting the site and create alternative incomes. But they struggle to articulate the cultural value of site to a community that is focussed on surviving in the everyday. In this case, effective utilisation from a heritage perspective is about preservation; effective utilisation for the community is about survival; whilst effective utilisation for the county government is about increasing visitor numbers. This illustrates the need to problematize the idea that research can simply ‘solve’ problems through effective application.

If cultural heritage values are plural and contested, then we need to open up the black box of what effective utilisation means and for whom?

This raises a set of questions about how to ensure effective utilisation? Our approach has been to engage in co-production through designing and undertaking the research with local groups. In Kisumu, academics have been working as cultural intermediaries seeing co-production as a means to support local leadership through setting up CBOs and networks of community-led sacred and cultural heritage sites. However, we need to recognise that if, cultural heritage values are plural and contested, and if there is an open question over Whose Heritage Matters, recognising difference rather than consensus is the ultimate goal.

As such, what we intend to co-produce is a shared forward plan between different groups, which identifies different values, issues, challenges and opportunities. A co-produced forward plan can visibilise tensions and trade-offs and can put the voice of community associations alongside those of decision makers.

To this extent, our aim is not necessarily to co-produce research, but to co-produce impact. Effective utilisation means creating and mobilising a critical and shared space for discussion, rather than a direct impact on jobs created, for instance. This kind of impact is more intangible, but nonetheless important, if research is not to legislate in contested spaces, but rather to open them up for dialogue and discussion.

The role of research is not to legislate through providing particular solutions, but to have impact through opening up contested spaces for dialogue and discussion.