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A Cultural Car Crash

Us Brits don't care enough about our cultural heritage

Culture and heritage sites are alive, active, and crucial components of our national fabric. As tools that can transport us to the past, they have an emotional impact; inspiring qualities and teaching abilities, they should be engaged with and experienced on a communal as well as personal level. But what is considered culturally valuable and who gets to decide?             

 In 2022, 81 per cent of Brits said that “looking after historic buildings, monuments, and archaeology to safeguard the places people love” was personally important to them. This appears to grant British cultural heritage a guaranteed seat at the ‘national treasures’ table, alongside the likes of David Attenborough and Judi Dench (there's been a free spot since Prince Harry’s fall from grace). But it takes only one person to steal or vandalise a slab of York stone, or the metal roofing off a historic church (both top on the heritage thief’s hit list apparently), and suddenly it’s not available for everyone to enjoy.


Rates in heritage and cultural crime in the UK have increased in the past few years. Across the 2021/22 period, it is estimated that more than £3.2 million of cultural property was stolen in a number of sophisticated burglaries by organised crime groups. And perhaps slightly less glamorous sounding is the rise in unlawful metal detecting and antisocial behaviour such as arson, vandalism, and graffiti.


The chastisement of these criminals and their lack of respect is a job others are already fulfilling (Historic England recently announced new detection measures, such as body-worn cameras). But why are individuals incentivised to commit these crimes in the first place? Heritage sites need to find new ways to encourage us to care about their objects, houses, and gardens as — for some — it is clearly not working. 


In recent decades, additions to cultural sites have proven to be key attractors. The National Trust gift shop has become a national treasure itself — something that, as a collector of their leather bookmarks, I am not necessarily against. However, the disproportionate popularity of the tea room (an addition hotly-debated in the 1960s), doesn’t demonstrate care for our historical objects so much as a need to refresh after a hard day of culture-consuming. What’s more, to enjoy both of these things, money is needed. And here we have come to the crux of the issue.


In the current cost of living crisis, as before, people have more essential things to worry about than admiring the elegance of a Georgian table or a castle garden’s topiary. Understandably, these pleasures are certainly not top priorities when you are struggling to pay your bills, as 21 million Brits are. National Trust properties are often very difficult to access without a car, and entry fees can be anywhere between £8-£25. Perhaps the introduction of subsidised ticket days and a bus scheme would go some way to helping this.


British heritage not only needs to become more financially accessible but also needs to diversify its audience. In 2019/20, 75.3 per cent of people from White backgrounds said they had engaged with heritage in the last 12 months, compared with only 41.1 per cent of those who identified as Black. Addressing highly problematic histories involving slavery is an important part of this, though it isn’t a guarantee for making non-white Brits feel welcome — as some institutions seem to think it is. Neither do I think a forced rebrand would do much good. Italy’s 2023 ‘Open to Meraviglia’ cultural campaign (a stereotype-fulfilling act of self-sabotage from a country that offers so much more) is a nice example of how not to do it.


Defining ‘British’ is marvellously complex. Maintaining a sense of collective heritage whilst simultaneously celebrating our rich cultural diversity isn’t easy. But cultural heritage connects us with the places we live in, relevant to anyone living in Britain, irrespective of their background. What was valuable in the past has shaped all of our present. Maybe we’d all care more if the National Trust embraced contemporary functions for their properties, let us run loose in their massive houses more, and even allowed us to actually sit on those chairs...

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