Why cultural heritage matters now more than ever
Last month the Ivankiv Museum, located around 50 miles north of Kyiv, was reportedly burned by Russian forces, leading to the loss of several paintings by local folk artist Maria Prymachenko. A local man ran into the building and saved about 10 of the 25 Prymachenko works stored there.
The artist’s great-granddaughter said that “the museum was the first building in Ivankiv that the Russians destroyed… I think it is because they want to destroy our Ukrainian culture...”
We have seen paintings, icons, books and statues hurried into storage, and we cannot but think of the bravery of museum curators and directors across the world, in Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, and countless other places.
UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay has stated in the context of Ukraine that “we must safeguard this cultural heritage as a testimony of the past but also as a vector of peace for the future, which the international community has a duty to protect and preserve for future generations.”
The palpable value of culture in war is a reminder that when we talk about cultural heritage, we are talking about what lies at the very heart of identity and values, for good and for ill.
At the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) we are proud to be working with DCMS on the Cultural Heritage Capital programme, which looks to publish research, data, guidance and tools to help organisations make a stronger case for investment in culture and heritage assets – which are so vital to our lives and identities.
Cultural heritage can enrich our lives in so many ways. Here, I explore why cultural heritage – enriched by research – must be valued in our quest for a better future.
The power of stories
Humans have developed a highly sophisticated language with which to tell stories and to memorialise those stories. We all know and feel the power of place and object. Objects and places acquire value through our telling stories about them – and embedding them in our stories about ourselves.
But equally, the negative consequences of bad storytelling are all around us. They are visible in the consequences of a story we told ourselves about our mastery over nature and our right to use its resources without limit. It’s visible in the stories we have systematically not told, the people whose words and lives we have occluded and the impact on educational attainments and the underestimation of their potential, economic and social.
And it’s playing out in war and devastation. Whatever analysis we eventually agree on to explain the conflict that is raging in Ukraine and Russia, one part will be the hugely damaging legacy of partial, unbalanced, and uncontested stories about culture and heritage which powerful individuals have told to themselves and to others.
That’s why cultural heritage needs to be taken seriously, and its value fully recognised. It’s why we need a better explanation of the balance sheet of culture and heritage capital, which shows that for all its intangibility its direct impact on the world is measurable for good, and that underinvestment in its rich complexity has a massive cost.
This work demands collaboration. Cultural heritage also has the power to bring together knowledge and ideas from across disciplines and across funders such as DCMS, AHRC, Arts Council England and Historic England.
Only when arts and humanities, heritage science and economics genuinely come together will we find the best way to articulate the social and economic impacts and value for money of culture and heritage, which can then change funding policy.
For me one of the main legacies of this area of work will be that we get to know each other better and work more closely together. We have so much to do.
Let me give an example of the difference funding can make. Recently I was in the science and conservation lab of the V&A. The AHRC has spent over £2m over the past two years to provide new kit, better storage, improved facilities, additional staff and new AHRC-funded collaborative PhDs.
The V&A is using this skill and expertise not only to support its own collection, but to offer loans to others such as the major Donatello exhibition in Florence, and its satellite museums in Stoke-on-Trent and Dundee.
Some may ask, why should we care about the capacity to identify a tiny piece of thread or a trace of vermilion on an old painting? There are many answers to that question but here are some.
This funding is helping V&A improve the sustainability of its buildings.
It is helping pioneer new techniques and technologies – not taking from science but giving to science, from nanotechnology to equipment design. We already seeing equipment providers using this experience to innovate.
And by using this combination of expertise and equipment on its new accessions, the V&A is proactively underpinning the future sustainable conservation of today’s artefacts.
Culture and heritage capital
So when we think about culture and heritage, from how we value it in war, to how we use it in our stories, to the way we fund it and why, we rapidly find ourselves talking about the science of our humanity, the potential for our imagination, the capacity to escape our past and enrich our future.
Those values and outcomes may seem intangible, but they have tangible impacts on our world, and it’s that which we need to capture, rigorously and systematically, to support future funding and future generations.
Christopher Smith is executive chair at the Arts and Humanities Research Council