Project Set Up: Unsettling Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Livelihoods

By Beth Perry, Urban Institute, University of Sheffield

The 'Whose Heritage Matters?' project had its first project meeting and formal launch in Cape Town in November 2018.

With co-funding from Mistra Urban Futures, the full team, including Beth Perry, Vicky Habermehl, Rike Sitas, Patrick Hayombe, Fred Odede and Vicky Simpson, were able to spend a day together looking at key issues and themes and constituting common understanding. We discussed our hopes and fears for the project, including how to ensure an ethical, non-extractive process which aligned with existing local work within the context of this specific grant.

All the Whose Heritage Matters team have previously worked on local projects in Cape Town, Kisumu and Manchester concerning cultural democracy, heritage, memory and meaning in the city. Through this work, and despite different cultural contexts, we agreed that cultural heritage should be seen as changing and open, not fixed and immutable. Our project is part of a new paradigm of cultural heritage which emphasises its unfixed, malleable and permutating nature of heritage.

We agreed there is a bias towards understanding heritage as something that can be seen or touched, for instance physical sites, buildings and artefacts, instead of the cultural practices, meanings and rituals associated with the idea of heritage.

That cultural heritage is contested by different groups was a common theme, with an emphasis particularly on the different ways in which heritage is valued and then conceptualised in policy initiatives or funding schemes.

The introduction of a gendered perspective to questions of cultural heritage was a new direction for our Kisumu team members, whilst the emphasis on trans-gender, non-binary and gender-fluid cultural heritage and identity was prime amongst the considerations in Cape Town.

‘Sustainable livelihoods’, a term referenced in the project title, was problematized by team members. The term is drawn from international development policy and focusses on the idea that people are able to have a means of living that can withstand external stresses and shocks. However, our discussion sought to trouble the concept in terms of its narrow focus on economic development and lower consideration of wider quality of life considerations.  We agreed that it is important not to ‘overpromise’ what a project such as ours might deliver, in the context of the instrumentalisation of culture to wider social and economic development goals.

Following our internal project meeting we took part in the Mistra Urban Futures 3rd Annual Realising Just Cities conference, hosted by the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town.

We were able to launch Whose Heritage Matters during a panel discussion as part of the conference, chaired by South African project lead, Dr Rike Sitas. 

Presentations from Cape Town and Kisumu set out background work which informed the generation of the Whose Heritage Matters project, whilst the UK project lead, Professor Beth Perry introduced the key questions we are asking and approach to be undertaken. 

An audience of 50 people, drawn from the Mistra Urban Futures network in the UK, Sweden, Kenya and South Africa asked insightful questions - regarding not only contested notion of cultural heritage, but also the limits to reconciliation between different values, for instance, in relation to the role of women and wider intersectional debates about the rights of transgender women. 

Launching the Whose Heritage Matters project in Cape Town, November 2018.

From left to right: Rike Sitas, Vaughan Sadie, Patrick Hayombe, Fred Odede, Ylva Berglund, NIklas Sorum and Beth Perry.