Cultural heritage, tourism and Ironbridge Gorge

Interviewer: Lucy Vernall (Interviewer, Ideas Lab)
Guest:  Professor Mike Robinson
Recorded: 26/02/2013
Broadcast: 18/03/2013

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Lucy: Today we’re with Professor Mike Robinson who is Chair of Cultural Heritage and Director of the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage. Welcome, Mike. 

Mike: Hello. 

Lucy: So tell us about the Institute. 

Mike:  Well, the Institute, formerly known as the Ironbridge Institute, has actually been going for well over 25 years as a partnership between the University of Birmingham and the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, which look after the world heritage of Ironbridge and in recent times we have changed the name and we are now the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage, which I think reflects the changes that we have made to the way that we look to cultural heritage.  

Lucy: So define ‘cultural heritage’ because that’s kind of a newish term as well isn’t it?

Mike: It is a relatively new term and again it means different things to different people. You can define it in terms of what we might call the built heritage or the tangible heritage, so we talk about buildings and museums and objects and artworks etc, which I think most people look at in terms of heritage. But there's also an intangible aspect to heritage.  Intangible cultural heritage, there’s a big agenda there now and that relates to things like languages, to our knowledge, to various festivals and rituals that we participate in. So there’s that way of defining it. There's also a personal heritage and again, you know, there’s never been a bigger time, certainly if you watch the TV, about rediscovering your past and family histories and we’re all engaged with our own heritage at that level.  We all have our personal heritages.  And then at the other extreme, you have world heritage which I guess is the selected crème de la crème of what heritage is and that goes through formal processes, through UNESCO and various committees to define this thing we call ‘world heritage’ which is seen to have outstanding universal value. 

Lucy: And of course you sit in – not you personally but the Institute – sits in a world heritage site. 

Mike: Yes, we’re very fortunate to have this incredibly close connection with the world heritage site. The world heritage site was designated in 1987, it was amongst the first in the UK to be designated as such. It was actually designated at the same time as Venice, which I sometimes have to remind myself. We’re on a par with Venice.  But it’s a great opportunity for us because we have incredible resources at our disposal, the history of the site, the archives of the site, the collections at the site. 

Lucy: And for those of us who don’t, or people that don’t know about this site, tell us what’s so special about it?

Mike: OK, the site is basically the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. It was the site in 1709 where Abraham Darby operated his first coke-fired furnace but it’s also the site of the world’s first single span cast iron bridge. But the site stretches over six and a half square kilometres and is made up of a whole range of different elements relating to the birthplace of industry – of mining, of iron production but also clay production and tile production – which basically served the world at the time through Empire.  So it’s an incredible landscape. You have to remember that when the landscape was in full flow back in the 18th Century it was like hell, I mean it was dirty, noisy – we can’t comprehend that. Now you go there, it’s peaceful, it’s tranquil, nature has taken over, you can walk through woodlands. You wouldn’t know this was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution but it’s an incredibly important site for that reason. 

Lucy: So the world heritage side of your work is perhaps coming to the fore like never before, would you say?

Mike: Yes. There are now 962 world heritage sites on the UNESCO list and because we’ve been a world heritage site for so long, we have various sort of skills and capacities which we’ve developed over the years which I think can inform other world heritage sites around the world and we have a very high profile. Recently through a partnership with UNESCO and Trip Advisor we were voted the second world heritage site in the world which people would like to visit. 

Lucy: Wow. 

Mike: Only after the Portola Palace in Lassa, in Tibet.  And certainly the number one site within the UK. We have a very strong not just national profile but international profile. 

Lucy: And you’re going to be doing something in Taiwan?

Mike:  We are.  In April we have a very big international conference where we have about 220 plus papers presented from researchers and policy makers from around 60 countries in the world.  The conference takes place over five days and it’s a way of discussing the relationships between our cultural heritage and tourism. Tourism is a great driver for heritage but it can also create problems.  So this is a way of investigating and bringing together researchers around the world who are looking at that interface between sort of heritage and tourism. 

Lucy: So this is about how do you protect it, how do you develop it, how do you exploit it?

Mike:  Yes and also about what are the implications of this relationship? How does it reflect itself in tourist practices for instance? How does it reflect itself in the identities of local communities, some of which feel swamped because, you know, they’re in a world heritage site but all of a sudden the rest of the world wants to come and look at them and they’re not prepared for that and what does that say about their way of life and how they project their own identities. So there’s a whole range. I think we have 78 different themes which we’re addressing at the conference which just, I guess, marks out the importance of the area. 

Lucy:  And then later on this year in July you’ve got a conference a bit closer to home. 

Mike:  We have. We have a really interesting conference which has attracted a lot of international attention. This will be on our Ironbridge site. The title of the conference is ‘Rust, Regeneration and Romance – the Steel and Iron Cultural Landscapes’ and it’s a way of again, opening up the discussion about how we see iron and steel as just part of our cultural landscape, so I have people who are going to give very technical papers about sort of the production of iron and steel in various parts of the world, but I also have people there who are going to be talking about how iron was implicated in 19th Century literature for instance and became part of our everyday discourse and what iron and steel actually enabled us as a society to do, whether that was to travel or whether that was to build fantastic structures, etc.  So by bringing everybody together we hope to have a really interesting exchange. 

Lucy: And of course the international side of the work isn’t just around scholarship but it’s actually around visitors as well; how we give the best experience to people of all different languages and all different cultures who are coming here to experience our heritage. 

Mike: Yes.  It’s about understanding I think the role that we have in terms of connecting visitors to heritage, whether it’s their own heritage or whether it’s to the heritage of others and I think in a sort of globalised, mobile world, looking at how we communicate across cultures, across languages, across time, is a really important dimension of the work that we do because in some cases we just don’t know.  We don’t know how others see our heritage and what it actually means to them, if it means anything at all.  So how do you sort of project an idea of a national heritage, or even a regional heritage, in a time when you have a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic sort of society? So these are really fascinating questions. 

Lucy: So what is our English heritage in a multi-cultural Britain?

Mike:  It’s a very difficult one, it’s a very difficult one indeed and this is something I hope to be picking up again with a workshop maybe later this year.  It came to the fore with the Olympics because I remember talking to a committee when the Olympics was just a sort of glimmer in somebody’s eye and saying well, here’s a fantastic opportunity to project the nation’s heritage, but whose heritage and which groups are privileged to present their heritage and which groups are maybe not so concerned about the built environment and the built part of their heritage but are more interested in the intangible aspects of their heritage – maybe festivals and rituals in their own languages etc. So this is a really big issue, not just for the UK but for any multi-cultural society. How does it reconcile the past with the future, I guess?

Lucy: Well Professor Mike Robinson, Director of the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage, thank you very much for your time and best of luck in Taiwan and with everything else you’ve got on this year. 

Mike: Thank you very much.  Thank you.

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Lucy Vernall and the producer was Sam Walter.