Marketing heritage, neo-liberal style
Updated: Jan 21
The heritage management system enacted by the NSW Heritage Act 1977 has matured alongside the ascendant economic creed of our era, neo-liberalism. Hardly surprisingly, this relationship is often fraught, with heritage conservation's recognition of multiple values, many non-quantifiable in any economic sense, often butting heads with an ideology that highly values monetary considerations.
Barring any deep structural change, this will be the ongoing reality for heritage practitioners, owners, managers, developers and advocates. It should be faced as a reality. While heritage has a powerful case, it has to be made. The approach of Touring the Past is simple. We convey heritage positive arguments and ideas in a form to which even the most die-hard neo-con can relate, namely the immense, often untapped, economic value of the historic environment.
Recent decades have seen an accumulation of convincing arguments articulating the economic benefits of conservation, both at home and abroad – link here for an in-depth summary. Add to this the increasingly popular and mandated concept of sustainability – the in-built 'greeness' of older building stock and energy-efficient retrofits – together with a myriad of cities, towns and localities that have reinvented themselves by putting heritage at the centre of urban revitalisation strategies and you have both powerful affirmations and datasets to demonstrate the economic value of good conservation.
Despite such verifications, these facts have largely failed to engender broad grassroot realisation or political support, at least in Australia. Old tropes still abound in the popular mindset, with misconceptions about the financial impact of heritage listings and regulatory requirements (it's the 'paint police' scatter!) still too often the starting point of dialogue. Another factor is the slim margins and relative profitability of development. Even in situations where actively engaging in the historic environment provides an advantage, the gains to be realised from other options can be just attractive.
In recent years, the conservation academy and industry has appeared to veer away from the viewpoints of early theorists. Foundational figures like French mouthful, Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc or John Ruskin (amongst others), whose works and writings argue the preservation of old buildings and monuments as a social stipulation and moral necessity that provided a vital, anchoring source of meaning in a fluid world rarely make it into contemporary discussion which is dominated by a series of late twentieth century charters or glossy best-practice publications. This may be because some of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century conservation cannon is outdated and open to accusations of elitism, however, perhaps another reason is that the older preservation rationale is out of step with the market-driven imperative of our contemporary age.
We think these foundational ideas deserve re-examination. They encapsulate the social, cultural and historic sinews that blind people to places. As globalising trends become ever more entrenched, heritage offers a potent device for responding to neo-liberalism in a way it can recognise and to which it can relate.
Our species cannot be categorised as coolly operating, purely rational economic actors (although a few economists at Davos would disagree). While keenly conscious of financial issues, we also make choices based on relationships and beliefs, such as connections to place.
At work in the substratum here is our perception of authenticity – the accumulated layers that embody a house, street, landscape or object with distinctiveness. Authenticity is a dynamic force that connects people to places and things. In a world were reduplication and sameness is pervasive, authenticity marks locations moulded by historical processes into environments that resonate with texture, atmosphere and meaning. Such 'real' places can only accrue over time. They cannot be manufactured on the assembly line, and home-delivered.
Authenticity derives genuineness and character from history, aesthetics and culture. A product of incalculable forces, it is always discernible from the imitative and kitsch. In response to globalisation, authenticity has become an extraordinary commodity with a market presence and value. As we hurtle into the Anthropocene, we believe that by clearly articulating and focusing on the multiple economic dimensions of the historic environment, a pathway for interpreting and safeguarding those places we love and want to keep can be mapped out and converts won.
The value of heritage cannot be simply reduced to economics
If it were, we would never move beyond debates about FSR ratio and views. There is a host of other values connected to conservation that transcend dollars and cents and addresses emotions, identity and communities. If heritage is to connect with the far too often ruthless reductionism of neo-liberalism, then those who are invested and involved have to become better communicators of its economic value, at the heart of which is 'authenticity'.