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Heritage can grow the UK's post-Covid economy - but only if it starts "telling the stories of more diverse parts of Britain".

Dundee, pictured, was highlighted by the RSA and British Council as an example of the new approach to heritage the organisations are championing
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Zack Davidson

Heritage could help grow the UK's post-Covid economy if it becomes more diverse and inclusive, according to a new report.

A "radical" shake-up that broadens the appeal of heritage by encouraging more local collaboration and "telling the stories of more diverse parts of Britain" is needed now to ensure the sector's long-term sustainability, the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) and the British Council say.

Published on Friday, their paper 'Heritage for Inclusive Growth' says the sector's potential has been stunted by "outdated" views of what – and who – it represents.

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Materials released by the RSA say its recommendations are informed by "the context of post-pandemic recovery, and global calls to re-think historical narratives as the Black Lives Matter movement gains momentum".

“The Downton Abbey image of heritage – focused on stately homes and the more well-known parts of our national story – just doesn’t do justice to the rich history and diverse stories across our country," RSA researcher Becca Antink said.

"Our research suggests that heritage could be a key vehicle for driving inclusive growth and building more resilient and inclusive communities."

Stephen Stenning, Head of Arts and Society at the British Council, commented: "Now, more than ever, it is important not to dismiss heritage as a way of asserting a narrow view of history or pointing up key figures and moments that sustain inaccurate and outdated narratives."

"Heritage can help us explore and celebrate diverse and complicated pasts and it can also inform how we structure a better future."

A new kind of growth

The report recommends the sector shift its focus away from built heritage – landmarks, attractions and museums – towards intangible forms of heritage like community groups and local traditions.

It says better collaboration with local government and local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) is needed to deliver this new approach to heritage in a way that benefits regional and minority communities in the UK.

Antink said that conventional economic ideas about heritage have been "seriously challenged" in recent years.

“Much of the economic growth of the past decade has been centred on financial and urban hubs, without spreading into local communities and the regions.

"We need to change the way we think about growth, towards an understanding which also recognises social and environmental impacts, and is sustainable and rooted in places."

A nascent approach 

Some places have already begun developing a more collaborative and holistic approach to heritage, but the change is piecemeal: "The case studies point to what heritage for inclusive growth can look like in practice, but they also highlight how this is still a nascent approach," the report said.

Dundee was highlighed as a success story for the way that its heritage has been "interconnected". Heritage sites receive funding on the condition that they reach out across the city and its residents, and large events, such as the upcoming 200th anniversary for the HMS Unicorn, involve many of the city's major civic and corporate employers.

RSA and the British Council identified six principles for re-booting heritage: policy integration, quality jobs, equitable infrastructure, co-ordinated long-term investment, shared decision making, and financial models that share wealth and financial security.

They acknowledge there is no one-size-fits-all model.

"It is unlikely that the approach taken in any of these one places will be immediately replicable and transferrable to another," the report said.

"The nature of heritage is that it is specific to a local place, and each has different needs and priorities with regards to inclusive growth."

When it comes to developing the community relationships needed to deliver this new approach, some places are "further ahead in this respect than others".

Staffing and leadership

Despite a growing recognition that heritage organisations should work as 'facilitators' rather than 'gatekeepers', more radical approaches to co-production, co-curation and co-evaluation are needed, the report says.

This means big changes to governance and management. The report notes, for example, that gender-balanced boards are increasingly held up as "the gold standard in representation".

"It is a start, but if everyone on that board is white, from an affluent background and able-bodied, that organisation is not well positioned to recognise, value or meet the needs of a diverse community or audience."

It says change will require strong leadership which is "not afraid to tackle uncomfortable or difficult questions through this process, but to do this in a collaborative way."

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