Heritage and Sustainable Development

Beirut around 1930. Images from Travel Film Archive.

Over four years, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has made over 200 awards through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and the Newton portfolio. These awards have drawn on AHRC’s research base to address development challenges that are ultimately global challenges, including for example poverty reduction, global health, climate change, resilience, conflict, displacement, inclusive education, and rapid urbanization.

Praxis, a project based at the University of Leeds, aims to connect portfolios to champion the distinctive contribution that Arts and Humanities research can make to tackling urgent development challenges. For its first major event, Praxis will bring together AHRC-GCRF research projects that address the theme of heritage to draw out synergies, collate knowledge and learning, and discuss where can/should heritage research for global challenges go next. The event builds on and is informed by conversations with project Principal Investigators and partners, and it champions an expanded and nuanced conceptualization of heritage that has emerged from within the AHRC-GCRF and Newton portfolios.

Heritage is not just about historic buildings—and it is about the present and the future as much as it is about the past. Heritage research engages in difficult conversations about uncomfortable pasts, from slavery to conflict, and about our relationships with place, climate, food, and animals, in ways that often illuminate the challenges of inequality, injustice and exploitation in the present, and to develop new visions for the future.

Heritage research raises important questions about power: the power to define what is of value as heritage (and, by implication, what is not), and the consequences of these definitions for people’s lives. This makes heritage a site of contestation where local, national, and global tensions play out. Power can manifest in other ways too; in claims to authenticity that marginalise some people and their culture, or in projecting a homogenous identity in place of a diverse and complex past. At the same time, heritage sites may offer ways of engaging with violent and difficult pasts, opening up space for dialogue.

Heritage research also finds itself facing a very modern problem: who owns data? Much heritage material is branded as propriety data, and this poses problems for sharing it in the public domain. Who owns the data produced by research projects? What is the legacy of heritage artefacts and instruments created by research projects? How do researchers and funders ensure this is sustainable?

New technologies offer exciting possibilities for heritage research. Geo-mapping enables tagging archival materials to urban spaces, amplifying marginalised voices, and supporting more inclusive cities and societies. Data scraping offers ways for recovering lost heritage for and on behalf of displaced populations. 3D scanning and Virtual Reality are transforming archaeology. Heritage research has been at the forefront of inter-disciplinary innovation.

Heritage research makes it possible to unlock and mobilize local knowledge, building equitable partnerships with local museums, promoting the creative industries and supporting local capacity building. These pursuits open up development thinking around economic sustainability in new ways.

Finally, key to all the above have been the partnerships established between researchers, museums, artists, NGOs, civic actors and activists around the world. AHRC-UKRI projects on heritage have been at the forefront of navigating what equitable partnerships look like, exploring why working with local institutions like museums is so important, and how to manage dealing with governments in very different contexts. What is the collective learning on equitable partnerships? And how can we improve it going forwards?

These are important lessons and reflections that inform how heritage research addresses global challenges.

Heritage for Global Challenges (West Bekaa, Lebanon 24-26 February 2020)

“Heritage and Global Challenges” brought together an international group of delegates to engage in 3 days of workshops and group activities to address the question of how the collective learning from AHRC-GCRF projects on heritage has shaped global challenges in the past four years, and how it should continue to do so in the future. The 3-day event included brief lightning talks by all delegates, as well as a session at the end of each day for the collective writing of a briefing report co-authored by all those present.

Heritage for Global Challenges Conference Report

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Heritage for Global Challenges Flagship Report

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Heritage and Our Sustainable Futures (22 February – 3 March 2021)

Agreed in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) unite 193 Governments with the shared aim of leaving both our planet and societies on a sustainable footing for future generations. No poverty, clean energy, sustainable cities and quality education are among the challenging targets that must be met no later than 2030. The pressure is on, and it’s all hands-on deck with experts from across the globe rallying to this call. Since cultural heritage is an expression of human communities through diverse media, experts work to safeguard all manners of heritage: from vast buildings, works of art and folklore, to artefacts, language and landscapes. The shared goal, however, is simple: preserve the past so that future generations might enjoy, benefit and learn from its legacy.

Likewise, the Sustainable Development sector works to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. With support from the AHRC, the UK National Commission for UNESCO and Praxis at the University of Leeds hosted ‘Heritage and Our Sustainable Future: Research, Practice, Policy and Impact’, a virtual conference from 22nd February to 2nd March. The conference brought together a diverse range of cultural heritage and sustainable development contributors, including policymakers, practitioners and researchers, but also non-governmental organisations (NGOs), museums, private sector representatives and other stakeholders from across the globe. United by the shared goal of collaboration for sustainable progress, the conference will explored how best to utilise cultural heritage research on the ground to drive forward the SDGs, especially in Official Development Assistance (ODA)-eligible countries. A conference report will be available Spring 2021.

Visit the conference website here for more information.

Heritage and Our Sustainable Future Conference Recordings

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Heritage and Our Sustainable Future Reports

We are working in partnership with the UK National Commission for UNESCO to deliver a series of brief reports honing in on key themes within cultural heritage.

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Heritage and Our Sustainable Future Live Illustration

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Heritage and Our Sustainable Future Live Illustration

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Heritage and Our Sustainable Future Live Illustration

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Heritage and Our Sustainable Future Live Illustration

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