Looking back to go forward

As the recession bites, Samuel Jones looks to heritage and culture as a means of renegotiating socie

Just after Christmas, as markets crashed and banks fell, Shadow Secretary of State for Culture Jeremy Hunt released a document called History of Neglect, an attack on Labour's record on heritage.

It began with a list of charges. “Total public funding for heritage”, he said, “has fallen by almost 40% in real terms since 1997”.  Furthermore, “the Heritage Lottery Fund expects its real annual income to fall by another 43% by 2012”.

Mr Hunt is not alone in worrying about the fate of the UK's heritage sector.  At local government level, culture and heritage are not a statutory spending requirement: as a result, they are more generally likely to be first on the chopping block when local authority cuts, brought on by the credit crunch, begin to bite.  In The Observer, a list of leading voices from the cultural sector expressed their worries about the forthcoming year and the next Comprehensive Spending Review.

They are right to worry.  Only this month, Secretary of State for Culture Andy Burnham warned in The Stage that "in the climate we're in", he said, “the Treasury is saying for every pound of investment we receive, we're going to have to secure maximum return in terms of impact in the economy and making money go further”.

On the surface, it's difficult to disagree.  Why protect heritage rather than bail out a bank?  Where's the bang from culture and heritage for the taxpayer's buck?  The answer is because right now we need to make sense of the world, and understanding who we are and where we have come from helps us do that. Now is not the time for short-termism, and investing in heritage and culture is an important way of digging us out of the economic situation we are in.

Culture and heritage play a vital role in helping us to make sense of the world around us.  The reality of recession has shaken us to the core.  Markets no longer seem so global and certain; complex financial structures – and, at the personal level, our pensions – are clearly fragile.  It is telling that in the same month that Lehman Brothers fell and the gravity of economic difficulties really hit home in a public sense, the UK's Teacher Training Agency reported a rise in enquiries of 34 per cent.  Amid uncertainty, people are searching for values and beliefs. Despite the cheerleaders of market capitalism, it turns out that most of us would actually rather have an olive tree than a Lexus.

Certainly, this would seem to tie with consumer trends. The National Trust reports that footfall in its paid entry properties numbers over 12 million each year, with an estimated 50 million visits to open air properties.   Such levels of appeal have led Simon Jenkins to observe in The Guardian that where neophilic consumerism was the hallmark of the boom years, people are now rushing to the comfort of heritage and the security of the past.

I'd go one step further and argue that there's a different and far more important reason to think seriously about why we need heritage in the current climate.  It is about more than injecting quick shots of heritage that induce pleasant, but short-lived swoons of nostalgia.  In looking at, visiting and absorbing culture and heritage, we are doing more than simply finding things out and enjoying them.  Certainly, these are vital and thoroughly justifiable parts of the equation, but we also need to think about how heritage is presented and what role it plays.  Culture and heritage are spaces in which we encounter different values: the objects in museums, the results of our creativity and the fabric of our buildings are the material signs of our beliefs and values. Our cultural and heritage institutions can help us interpret and make sense of these.

That is why we should support and protect culture and heritage.  After the Second World War, Keynes and Roosevelt both saw culture as a wellspring for recovery that was both economic and social.  In a world where we encounter different cultures with a greater intensity than ever before, culture and heritage are now even more important. Heritage is one way through which we can think about the many different values that have led us to where we are today: culture is the sum total of our mutual response to those values.

Now is not the time to retrench. We know that heritage and culture have wide public appeal.  Shows like the British Museum's First Emperor are resounding successes; three million people tuned in to see each episode of Restoration.  Policy-makers across government need to recognise this.  Certainly, if culture and heritage can distract from graver issues, then that in itself is a reason to support them.  However, they also provide spaces in which we can confront, approach, discuss and renegotiate the many values that make up our society, and this is what we need as our worldview has been shaken to the core.

Samuel Jones is Head of Culture at Demos