How can we untangle heritage and challenge people's preconceptions?

Understanding the role of heritage in the intricate relationship between people and places.

Dr Ioanna Katapidi is quite used to people having rigid mindsets about what heritage is, and indeed what it is not. Her work at the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage at the University of Birmingham is centred on understanding the role of heritage in the intricate relationship between people and places. Getting to grips with a definition of heritage seems a useful point from which to start.

In essence, heritage is both the physical artefacts and the intangible attributes that people inherit from a previous generation. Preservation of a building, a tradition or a memory demonstrates a recognition that it plays an essential role in telling the story of the past, and can be used for current purposes.

But in the public sphere understanding of heritage varies, and it becomes entangled with other more widely-used terms such as ‘culture’.

“As much as I hate to generalise, in Europe heritage seems to focus much more on tangible elements, whether that be a building of architectural significance or a historic object,” explains Dr Katapidi. “Whereas in other parts of the world, practices and traditions appear to be have a more prominent role in attitudes towards heritage. For this reason it is useful for us to understand how communities interpret heritage when working with them.” 

“For example, there’s a very thin line between common understandings of culture and heritage. Indeed, one sometimes involves the other. Many people don’t use the term ‘heritage’. In common vernacular, heritage often feels backwards looking whereas culture feels more present. Culture has more to do with the way of life and our values, whereas heritage is more elements, practices and objects that are defined as being protected or used to satisfy present needs,” says Dr Katapdi. 

She acknowledges that this opposes the academic tendency to want to define heritage, but does not think it is too problematic. “Yes, experts often try to objectively label heritage. But heritage is a social construct, it is a fluid and subjective idea that changes over time, so we have to be flexible in our mindsets. That’s the joy of an evolving area of research.”

Defining heritage

Dr Katapidi outlines how the approach to heritage has started shifting to a more humanistic perspective in the past two decades. Whereas experts would objectively define heritage through the likes of World Heritage sites, there is a movement towards communities themselves choosing what to protect for future generations. A more diverse range of voices are starting to be heard.

She continues, “It is also not always about positive history, it is about meaning, something that can change based on context. There is a bit of a misconception that heritage is about ideal places, settings, memories and that is not the case at all. You think about historical atrocities and tragedies, the Holocaust, slavery, etc – these elements of our past need understanding and protecting. I think there is a greater appreciation of that now though. It is about what we want to pass on for future generations. If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going to.”

With more focus on incorporating local communities in the decision making process and embracing all types of heritage, there comes a need to bridge the gap to a rather archaic labelling process – complete with the trappings that come with an often one-dimensional, occidental world view. The traditional process relies on a criteria of selection, defined by experts. When the public is more involved, often with a deeply subjective personal connection to the heritage put forward, there is an inevitable jarring with the standardised criteria.

Getting that right requires an appreciation of how heritage is viewed in the ‘real world’.

Real people vs. experts

Dr Katapidi’s own journey into studying heritage harks back to her upbringing in a small village in mainland Greece, Mouresi.

“It’s very personal in a way,” she explains, “Mouresi is a very picturesque place, part of network of listed villages that are conserved because of the exceptional combination of natural and built environments. I was always fascinated by the nostalgia of the place, the stories of both the people and the buildings. I wanted to know how the traditions and customs persisted and survived, and why we were so keen to protect them.”

During her PhD, Dr Katapidi returned to Mouresi to investigate through a researchers’ lens. “Perhaps surprisingly, it was never really considered as heritage by the people there. It was just seen as a way of life, rather than something acknowledged as heritage. It wasn’t a matter of pride, just a case of maintaining a satisfying way of life and passing it on to the next generation.”

That experience underpinned Dr Katapidi’s growing interest in the juxtaposition between ‘real people’ and ‘experts’ in their perceptions of heritage. 

Dr Katapidi now works at the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage on a BRIDGE Fellowship, where she is examining the relationship between heritage and sustainable development. Specifically, how World Heritage sites contribute to, and are shaped by, the UN Sustainable Development goals. 

The research looks at different case studies from across the globe, including examples in China, Jordan, UK and Belgium, and seeks to ascertain how World Heritage sites can prosper sustainably. It comes as there is a move, at least in some World Heritage sites, towards becoming more responsible in that regard.

Dr Katapidi explains, “The approach has certainly started to change, not just because of the UN goals, but through a real necessity to review how the sites are managed. Where you have conflict between authorities, tourists, communities, the environment – there is a natural point at which you have to look at the whole and consider the sustainability of a site for all involved. Our role is to help that process by listening to those diverse voices. Believe me, you will not get all parties to agree on anything. But by bringing them all to the table and allowing them to contribute, you can at least have a more productive and progressive discussion.”

Addressing the reality

For many World Heritage sites, particular those that are universally recognised, sustainable development has not always appeared to be a priority. 

Though travel brochures may depict vast sandy open spaces around the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, the reality is a growing presence of fast food chains and hotels pushed up against the boundary of the much visited site.

For Dr Katapidi, this is something that must be considered in the research, “You have to address the realities. These sites, for obvious reasons of attracting more paying visitors, project an idealised version of the site. It’s only by working alongside a range of local stakeholders that you can get the true understanding of how a site might become more sustainable, and where those obstacles exist.”

In Petra, Jordan, Dr Katapidi and colleagues ran a workshop to get that holistic view.

“The approach of the site management in Petra was initially very much ‘top-down’. There was a case here in which they chose to relocate an entire settlement to help them preserve the site. Only from the backlash to that have they now realised that it was not sustainable or sensible, and are now looking at how the local communities can contribute to, and support, the heritage site, rather than being seen as an obstacle to its development.”

The conflict of interests that arise near heritage sites is commonplace. In Venice and Barcelona, family homes become AirBnBs and short-stay hotels. House prices grow exponentially, and young professionals look elsewhere to start their careers. Extreme cases, perhaps, but examples of the issues that befall highly popular heritage locations when the benefits are not distributed evenly or sustainably.

Communities, environments, practices – all can be threatened by a nearby World Heritage site if it is not managed in a sustainable manner. There is also a risk that they are detrimental to adjacent sites and the communities that depends on them.

Dr Katapidi believes that World Heritage sights can become drivers to not-yet-listed sites in the vicinity, “The label of a World Heritage site comes with a responsibility, not just to your site but to those around. Rather than overshadowing them, they can shine a light on them. It can be as simple as advertising them at their site, or distributing people to these places as part of a packaged tour. There are often simple ways to spread the benefits beyond.”

Moving towards a more sustainable future 

The UN Sustainable Development Goals have been put forward as the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. The 17 goals look to address the biggest global challenges, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice.

For World Heritage sites, a key challenge is making those somewhat abstract concepts real for the practitioners. It is early stages, but Dr Katapidi is optimistic that the early stage conversations are putting ‘flesh on the bones’. 

For Dr Katapidi, there is no substitute for the on-the-ground research with communities. 

“If you don’t engage the full range of people involved, and pull out the concepts that matter to them, sustainability just remains an abstract term. There are other methodological possibilities, such as social media, but this is by far and away the best way to get a complete picture – and also provide the communities with ownership of the future direction. It’s what we saw in Jordan, and indeed in Hangzhou, China.”

“There we were looking at governance of the natural and built elements of West Lake, and how local communities are involved in conservation policies and processes. Using local expertise we could set up interviews, focus groups and workshops and get beneath the surface of what the literature or documents would tell us.”

By the time a workshop is complete, the outputs appear much more tangible than the Sustainable Development Goals. They become something purposeful for the heritage managers and communities, and can be used as best practice in other sites.

The role of community ownership in sustainable heritage was seen clearly in Greece and Italy in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. 

When states shifted their priorities, against a backdrop of rising unemployment and other pecuniary concerns, the cultural sector was unsurprisingly one of the first to be affected with funding cuts. Rather than communities turning their backs on heritage there was a surprising resilience and a marked boon for entrepreneurial tourism.

“What seemed to happen was local communities found alternative ways to deal with the crisis. They started to see heritage as a potential route or working opportunities, or even as a hobby to keep themselves busy. For example, in Greece we saw movements to initiate festivals that celebrate local practices and traditions in order to attract tourists. Different people, hoteliers, restaurant owners and more tried to create ‘heritage packages’ that they could offer, sharing the wealth between them. That ground-up, community-centred, entrepreneurial thinking is by its very nature, sustainable.”

Raising awareness of global heritage

On the wall of Dr Katapidi’s office is a world map with coloured dots to mark listed heritage sites. It is hard to ignore the heavy concentration of dots in Europe when compared with the rest of the world.

“When this list was starting to be compiled it was only the places that knew how to make the application and navigate the processes that became listed. These processes were established by the Western world, and were inherently skewed to a Western lens as a result. It is a harsh term perhaps, but it is a kind of supremacy by which Western experts decided what is important for the world.”

Fortunately, Dr Katapidi is optimistic that this is starting to change.

“People are more aware of global heritage, and the role of traditions and practices as much as the built environment. But it is still restricted to those places with the resources, mechanisms and know-how to become listed and make the most of heritage. Fortunately, there is a growing appetite for change in the research community and the public. As researchers we carry a responsibility to both influence and be influenced by different processes and we are starting to see that shift.”

“Studying a heritage at this time, when there is a growing emphasis on how everyday people interact with places and ideas, is really exciting,” says Dr Katapidi. “Suddenly social media has become an influential factor, you can see burgeoning interest in a place borne out of an Instagram post, a movie, or a TV show. It’s not always about the originality, authenticity or architectural significance of a place or tradition. Yes heritage is heritage. But for whom? And why? That is something we must be aware of when looking at how heritage can be supported sustainably.”

“So long as people are curious about how they come to be who they are, and how others come to be who they are, there is hope that heritage will be preserved and people will engage in how it can be done in a sustainable way.”

Dr Katapidi will soon be heading to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as part of the BRIDGE Fellowship, where she will work alongside colleagues at CHAMP (Collaborative for Cultural Heritage Management and Policy).

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