Conference review: Capturing the Public Value of Heritage

George S. Smith reviews the conference ‘Capturing the Public Value of Heritage‘, held 25-26 January 2006 at the Royal Geographic Society in London:

The conference drew together a diverse audience of some 400 people to discuss the value of heritage around the concept of learned and shared public values. This review will not address individual presentations rather it will attempt to highlight major themes and concepts. Overall the conference was well organized and presentations and discussions were on topic. Live heritage performances complemented, demonstrated, and enhanced conference themes. It is anticipated that conference papers will be published in the near future.

Presentations and discussion revolved around how to achieve greater public involvement in heritage decision-making by using a public value approach. Of primary concern was the need to develop a broad and clear definition of the public value of heritage and the means to effectively measure this value so that it could be applied to public policy, spending, management, and delivered services relating to a collective heritage in a manner that demonstrates public accountability. The lack of accountability has been a major problem for the cultural sector and was addressed by a number of speakers. A broader definition of heritage was called for that would include not only the built environment, but remnants of the past embedded in the ground or underwater along with a people’s history and culture, all of which contribute to a collective memory which guides the present, impacts the future, and connects the past with the present.

It was acknowledged that measuring public value goes beyond what is normally measured through performance targets. To compete with other public concerns and agendas there must be a clear understanding of how heritage influences our daily lives and how shared heritage connects us to our past, not only as individuals but as communities and nations. It was further acknowledged that not all heritage values can be measured using standard measuring techniques and that caution is required because knowing the price of something was not necessarily the same as knowing its value. All presentations made it clear that public values must be based on an understanding of the past that gives equal voice to our commonalities and differences. In order to capture the full extent of public value it must be examined in such a way that captures intrinsic values (defined as individual experiences of heritage), instrumental values (defined as those associated with social or economic aspects of heritage), and institutional values (defined as the processes and techniques institutions used to create public value). Also discussed was the point that public value can not easily be quantified and differs from economic value which deals with worth relative to other things as indicated by price, while value relates to preferences and satisfaction associated with the moral and ethical sphere. Several presenters discussed economic values in terms of cost benefits ratios, embedded energy in historic structures, decreased impacts on utility and transportation systems, and a decrease in waste, and how that could augment values associated with heritage conservation, providing a strong incentive to study, interpret, protect, and manage the past in the public interest and with public funds.

Market forces and globalization’s impact on cultural heritage and how governments and policies deal with these issues was also discussed. It was pointed out that because not all cultural heritage concerns are reflected in market transactions it is critical to find methods to track these data so that in a market-dominated world, a case for protecting and managing heritage resources can be effectively made. Looking at the concept of heritage in terms of “cultural capital,” that is the stored and long-lasting value, was discussed as a useful method for achieving a quality that stands apart from financial worth while allowing economic principles to be applied to cultural heritage that are both measurable and applicable to heritage policy and long-term sustainability.

Engaging the public in the discussion and decision-making process was a central theme of the conference. This meant asking people what was important to them and not depending on experts alone. It was acknowledged that the skills, knowledge and abilities experts bring to the question of value are an important part of the process, but must be linked to other areas of the heritage sector including the public. It was also acknowledged that experts provide critical information to the public about the past based on rigorous research and peer review, enabling the public to draw their own conclusions about their relationship to the past and what value they place on it. It was acknowledged that experts have a professional and ethical responsibility to work with the public when they are ill-informed on an issue by providing useful information in a public forum so that any actions taken are based on sound information and thorough discussion. Informed public decisions are the basis for heritage issues to compete with an array of other public concerns. Several presenters felt that a shift from expert-based designations to public engagement and inclusiveness has resulted in new and innovative ways of telling the story of our collective heritage.

Engaging the public was demonstrated by a study undertaken to assess general public views on the public value of heritage. The question of why heritage matters and the benefits of heritage projects were used as the basis for discussion groups called citizen juries. The jurors were asked to consider the intrinsic (why heritage matters) and instrumental values (the benefits of heritage projects). Overall the results indicated that the public believed heritage mattered because it provided knowledge about the past, gave them a sense of identity, and made places more distinctive and special. They also believed that it was important to hand heritage down to future generations. The jurors also noted that heritage projects were most beneficial when they provided economic incentives and growth, brought people and communities together, and provided opportunities for learning and the development of skills and confidence. Public engagement was also demonstrated by a study undertaken to evaluate the impact of museums on learning using an impact analysis framework to capture social impact for the purpose of assessing needs, sector change, effectiveness of services, and the application to future needs. The study showed that teachers placed a high value on museum visits to support both teaching and learning, and that schools and museums benefited from working together.

Another discussion pointed out that heritage values are enhanced by a clear set of principles for the sustainable management of the historic environment that take into consideration the meaning/importance that people attach to elements of the historic environment. In this manner a wide range of overlapping values can be preserved and maintained for the enjoyment of current and future generations.

The development, execution, and assessment of heritage projects at the community level as well as highlighting the benefits heritage brings to the community was also addressed. Because heritage is also about bringing people together, building communities and encouraging respect, working towards economic success, and helping to secure a sustainable future it is important for individuals (heritage champions) and organizations to work with today’s challenges to create community cohesion, a sustainable future, and economic success in communities that have diverse and very real needs.

It was pointed out that in a recent study the vast majority of the people surveyed indicated that parks and public spaces improved their quality of life and provided physical and mental health benefits while on the economic side, well maintained public spaces added to property values and tourism. Because communities may look at the value of alternative uses for public spaces it is critical that the full measure of value be examined in order to demonstrate that public spaces, even if not revenue generating, are valuable assets.

When the papers from this conference are published I highly recommend them for practicing professionals and students in all aspects of the heritage sector. Values are assigned and they are learned so they must be taught not only in our academic institutions at all levels but in our communities as well. Having the past as part of contemporary society depends on how well this is done. Discussion of Public Value is a critical and timely topic. Other countries would be well served by undertaking similar discussion within the context of their community and national value systems.

George S. Smith
Southeast Archeological Center
Tallahassee, Florida, USA

The proceedings of the conference have just been published by English Heritage. They can be downloaded here as a PDF. Copies are also available from E H Sales (, product code 51216, price £10 plus p&p.

Summary conference programme:


From Consultation to Conservation: The Challenges of Better Places to Live. Tessa Jowell.

The Ideas – Public Value as a Framework for Analyzing the Value of Heritage. Robert Hewison and John Holden.

The Numbers – Measuring Public Value in the Heritage Sector.
Greg Wilkinson.

A New Approach to Public Value: Managing Citizens’ Preferences. Louise Horner, Rohit Lekhi, and Ricardo Blaug.

From Significance to Sustainability. Kate Clark.

Economics and Culture. David Throsby. Response by Randall Mason and Ece Ozdemiroglu.

Public Views of Heritage – The Results of HLF Citizens’ Juries in Nottingham and Cardiff. Deborah Mattinson.

Value and Integrity in the Cultural and Natural Heritage – from Parks Canada to World Heritage. Christina Cameron.

Why Do Places Matter? The New English Heritage Principles. Edward Impey.

Heritage on the Front Line – The Role of a Heritage Champion in North Yorkshire. Heather Garnett.

Community Identity and Heritage. David Lammy.

Sustainable Communities: The Economic, Social and Environmental Benefits of Heritage. Baroness Andrews.

Public Spaces, Public Value. Julia Thrift.

Debate: Do we get the heritage we deserve? Are heritage organizations in touch with what the public cares about? What happens when experts and the public conflict? Do heritage organizations have the right values?

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