Like many of you, I have been following the Limerick City of Culture debacle with a mixture of anger and amusement. Recent commentary has noted the lack of true appreciation of what the arts can do and the low level of trust between those in control and the people who create.
The picture in the heritage sector is depressingly similar. Since the 1990s heritage has been seen as a way of regenerating cities and towns through the country. This may take the form of an area based focus or by using a historic building as a totem around which a district may develop. From the outset, the obvious thing to do in both situations is to centrally involve a team of experienced, innovative, heritage professionals. However, just because something is obvious doesn’t mean it will be done.
What usually happens is that key decision makers in both the private and public sectors do their best to minimise the use of heritage professionals. There is a perception that archaeologists and conservation architects will only get in the way, slow things down and not allow them to do what they want!
In Ireland, most schemes in both the private and public sectors originate from the top down. Consultation is something you do after the plans have been made. One consequence of this is that the key decision makers often have a sense of emotional ownership. Put simply, it gets personal. Obviously, this situation does not lend itself well to compromise. Compounding all this is a general lack of knowledge by those in control about what heritage, used innovatively, can actually do.
The consequence of all this is conflict with locals, heritage professionals and national legislation. In this scenario, the archaeology and historic buildings being utilised move from being perceived as an asset to a threat. In the opinions of some decision makers certain heritage assets not seen as being core to the vision are seen as problems to be managed. Ultimately, opportunities are missed and initiatives suffer. Nowhere in Ireland is there a project like the Rocks YHA in Sydney. Located above one of the most important archaeological sites in Australia, this large four storey hostel has managed to reanimate an area of the city by fully utilising the potential that the underlying archaeology provided.
Without doubt, there are people in Ireland’s public and private sectors who truly value the contribution heritage professionals can make. However, within a development culture that is slow to change, they are a minority. Because of this, the prospect of places like the Rocks YHA being built around the country is sadly not great.
Liam Mannix is a heritage consultant with experience of working across the private and public sectors in Ireland, Australia and Papua New Guinea. He project managed the educational programme of the Irish Walled Towns Network which won the EU prize for cultural heritage / Europa Nostra Award in 2013. @maxmannix