The Future of the Past
A talk by Brian Lee Crowley, President of AIMS, to the Annual Conference of the Heritage Canada Foundation in St. John’s, Newfoundland, 22 October 1999
Let me begin by thanking Heritage Canada Executive Director Brian Anthony and Panel Convenor John Sewell for their kind invitation to be here today. This panel has been set the daunting task of setting the “Big Picture” for the deliberations of this conference on Canada’s heritage policies. To achieve this, we have been asked to give an overview of current and projected social trends and their implications for heritage conservation, particularly with respect to built heritage. An easy job to do, of course, and I have the huge luxury of having 10 minutes in which to do it!
It is my intention to suggest that there are three key trends which are vital for you to bear in mind in the heritage community. These are:
Democratisation in the largest sense, which includes mass customisation and the rise of consumer sovereignty;
Multiplication of the forms of access to heritage goods, including cheap travel and various forms of information technology;
Internationalisation or, if you prefer, the globalisation, of heritage consciousness.
Now some of these points will no doubt appear a bit obscure or Delphic right now, but I think that I will be able to clarify them in due course.
Before I do, however, I’d like to take a moment and invite you to try and put yourselves in the shoes of the political economist, someone like myself, and see how we view the whole question of heritage. Join me just for a moment in an exercise in imagination.
Heritage represents the past, but it provides important present satisfactions to a wide variety of people. We preserve heritage stock, not because it is old, but rather because we value it. In addition, heritage stock has a potential satisfaction value for future generations (about which more later), but again, that means we preserve heritage, not because it is old, but because we value the notion of passing on representative samples of the past in case future generations find them interesting. There are, however, no guarantees that they will find them interesting, nor that they will even share our view of what from the past was worth preserving.
It seems to me, therefore, that discussions of the past, of our “heritage”, are really discussions about the present, about the values we attach to things today.
The other key concept to remember is that heritage services – buildings, interpretation centres, museums, parks, etc. – all consume resources. They cost money to build and operate, they employ the time of people involved in them, etc. And in the real world, while the resources available to satisfy the full range of people’s demands and needs are limited, human desire is infinite.
Put these two ideas together – first, that heritage is about our values today, not about some sacrosanct and untouchable past, and second, that our desire to preserve our heritage is only one claim among many on society’s resources – and you begin to understand the real problem which the friends of heritage must face. That problem is this: how are we to determine what is the appropriate share of these scarce resources to devote to the good of heritage preservation?
For the vast majority of goods and services, we rely on a complex system of supply and demand which we call markets to guide in deciding how much of particular goods and services to produce. The term “markets” is only an abstract name to describe billions of decisions made every day by people just like you and me. If I buy an airline ticket to visit my ageing parents, and decide to stay over a Saturday night, I will save enough money on my fare to allow me to buy them a nice dinner in a restaurant. If I buy a cheap car, I sacrifice some luxury in exchange for more money left over to pay off my mortgage. The sum of those decisions sets the prices we pay for things and the distribution of the bulk of society’s resources.
We also use politics, however, to distribute some resources. In Canada, for instance, we use politics to determine the share of resources devoted to health care, as well as to distribute those resources.
Markets will supply many heritage goods, but it is generally thought that markets do not supply as many heritage goods as people actually want. Now, we assume that markets produce enough refrigerators, cars and shoes to satisfy people’s needs, but not enough heritage. Why is that? Because there are certain kinds of values regarding heritage that people hold which cannot be expressed through markets, that is by people freely choosing to buy one thing rather than another, and making conscious trade-offs between desired goods in order to maximise their welfare. There are five in particular:
Option Value. People value the existence of the option of using cultural or heritage services even if they in fact rarely do use them – they want the choice;
Existence Value. People feel good about knowing that there are wonderful national parks or museums or fine old heritage buildings that are being preserved;
Bequest Value. People feel an obligation to pass on to future generations at least some representative samples of the past;
Prestige Value. People feel a sense of pride at their nation being the repository of important pieces of the cultural heritage of humankind; and
Education Value. People feel that heritage and other services should exist for certain groups, such as schoolchildren, individuals acquiring knowledge of valuable skills for present and future use, or acquiring a familiarity with cultural standards, taste, etc.
As a result of these characteristic failures of markets to produce all the heritage we might like, we use government to provide many heritage goods through taxation – but this too is subject to serious problems. In particular, in the absence of market mechanisms as a check on whether we are actually supplying what people want, we risk one of two dangerous things. Either we risk oversupplying cultural or heritage goods, thus consuming more resources than people really want to devote to heritage, or we risk supplying the wrong kinds of cultural or heritage services, or we may do both simultaneously, since these two possibilities are not mutually exclusive.
With this as background, let me now return to my three Big Picture Themes:
1) Democratisation in the largest sense, which includes mass customisation and the rise of consumer sovereignty.
One of the trends sweeping the world is democratisation in a powerful new sense – not of ever-greater collective provision of goods under political control, but the increasing empowerment of everyone, rich or poor, uneducated or well-schooled, to choose exactly what they want for themselves and not compromise with others.
We see this in the marketplace every day. People choose Walkmen so they can control what they hear, and radio declines. They buy video machines and home computers so they can control what they watch, and TV viewership plummets. People choose houses over apartments, cars over buses, Wal-Mart over Eatons, because it widens their choices and therefore their control over the shape of their own lives.
You can now go on the Internet, type in your measurements and then see on the screen how different suits of clothes, with accessories, shoes, coats, etc., would look on you. You can then have exactly that suit of clothes made to your precise measurements and delivered within days to your door. This is the era of mass customisation, and it is only just gathering steam.
But most public services exhibit exactly the opposite characteristics: standardisation and uniformity. With minor variations, your kids go to very similar public schools all across the country. If you’re sick, you’re told what hospital to go to and what diagnostic services you’re entitled to. If you need court services, you see the judge at his or her convenience, not yours.
Publicly provided heritage services are pretty much the same. They involve experts trying to figure out how to make what they feel is important interesting to the public. This is a losing proposition, no matter how you tart it up with consumer surveys and the like.
Thus while heritage service provision has largely been the preserve of the public sector, that is breaking down throughout the Western world. The developing interest in the past and growing disposable incomes have stimulated private entry into the heritage business on a considerable scale. But these private providers – horror of horrors – actually give consumers more often what they want. And what many consumers want appears to many heritage professionals as inventions loosely based on the past, catering to crude antiquarianism or Disney-like fantasies.
But remember that if this is what people actually want, public support for tax-financed provision will decline. In an era when competition for public dollars is fierce, that puts a lot of publicly-funded providers in an awkward position. That is why, ladies and gentlemen, the true test of professional efforts to expand and improve appreciation of our heritage is the public’s willingness to pay from its own pocket.
2) Multiplication of the forms of access to heritage goods, including cheap travel and various forms of information technology.
Let me take travel first. Falling cost of travel adds a new piece to the puzzle. Before I was talking about market fragmentation and consumer empowerment as posing a danger to public heritage services, but this is largely a domestic phenomenon.
It is countered by the international phenomenon of a relatively wealthy leisured class that is highly motivated to seek out and consumer heritage services across borders. But, capturing a share of their willingness to pay through the tax system and returning it to heritage service providers is a knotty problem to which there is no easy solution. Still, they are likely your biggest potential sources of revenue if you know how to capture their discretionary spending.
As for technology, it is important to realise that it is increasingly possible to benefit from the existence of many heritage facilities without visiting them, just as I can listen to any of the world’s finest symphonies without actually going to hear them. I can enjoy the productions of some of the finest theatre companies in the world without ever setting foot in their theatres via video cassette or pay-TV. Videos offer guided tours of historic sites or other heritage locations from, as the Americans say, the comfort of your own home. They can offer custom viewing of art galleries with expert commentary. Soon, I am convinced, you will be able to visit the website of the Prado or the Louvre and design your own custom tour at your leisure in the language of your choice, without plane tickets or enduring the importunities of rude Parisian taxi drivers.
Soon you, as heritage providers, will be in competition with enterprises that will offer pseudo-heritage experiences in convenient locations in local suburbs. The logical ultimate conclusion, I suppose, of this line of thought, is the holodecks on the Starship Enterprise, where computer technology allows each individual to custom design the heritage experience he or she wants, not the one some “expert” thinks would be good for us. If you can capture the value of even a fraction of the spending people are willing to make along these lines, your future will be assured. If you disdain popular tastes and expectations to have those tastes satisfied, the traditional heritage world will slowly shrink.
3) Internationalisation or, if you prefer, the globalisation, of heritage consciousness.
As an awareness of our common humanity asserts itself ever more insistently against the claims of nation, tribe and national sovereignty, a powerful new source of competition for scarce heritage dollars is emerging.
Remember that, much as it may wound our pride as Canadians to say it, the stock of heritage goods is extremely unequally distributed around the world and we, relatively speaking, don’t have all that much of it. Not only do we not have much in Canada, the whole continent is relatively under-endowed in the field. New York City, for example, a relatively old city in North American terms, contains within its borders a grand total of five buildings that are more than 200 years old.
Yet there are many poor countries richly endowed in heritage stock. One might think of the architectural and other built heritage treasures of Cambodia or Egypt or India or Burma. Moreover, there are relatively wealthy countries such as, say, Italy, whose wealth is nonetheless dwarfed by the richness of their heritage stock. Italians would have to impoverish themselves just to keep even a fraction of it from deteriorating and, ultimately, disappearing.
Thus the City of Boston is spending $20-billion US to sink its freeways underground, while the City of Venice, one of the crown jewels of Western civilisation, is sinking for free.
In short, we will soon be facing much more explicitly the global dimension of the scarcity of all resources, and especially heritage resources. Every dollar we invest in preserving a 19th or early 20th century building of only modest architectural or historical significance in Canada is a dollar lost to the effort of conserving a priceless work of art mouldering away in the hermitage in Russia, repository of many of the West’s most priceless cultural treasures.
In summary, ladies and gentlemen, many of the assumptions that underlie predominantly public provision of heritage services are breaking down, while the means to allow each individual to satisfy widely divergent cultural tastes are exploding.
New sources of revenue, in the form of wealthy international cultural consumers, are there and growing, but capturing the value publicly-provided heritage offers them will be difficult. Similarly, new revenue can be derived from promoting non-traditional forms of access to heritage services, but this will require heritage professionals to overcome some of their traditional distaste for “populist” approaches to their field.
Finally, scarce heritage dollars will increasingly be vulnerable to being claimed by the urgent effort needed to preserve heritage artefacts in poor countries, as globalisation makes us more conscious of our global heritage as well as our global future.