JOANNA SANETRA-SZELIGA, KATARZYNA JAGODZIŃSKA: HERITAGE - A FORM OF CAPITAL?
What is the value of cultural heritage? Can it be measured by economic indicators? Why should it be treated as the strategic resource of the 21st century?
Our contemporary understanding of cultural heritage has gone well beyond its original definition as a static monument of the past. Even though both concepts serve to designate concrete physical objects, the idea of cultural heritage also covers elements such as their intangible aspects and the symbolic dimension that surrounds them. It can also be considered as a market product. Today, cultural heritage is closely studied by economists, sociologists, psychologists, and medical scientists, and in 2014, the European Union recognized it as an important "strategic resource of for a sustainable Europe".
Direct contact with cultural heritage is a source of respite and enjoyment, makes us proud of the place we live in, and affects our overall quality of life. Research shows, however, that its impact is also much broader and less obvious than that.
Approximately 306 thousand people across the continent find employment in the area of cultural heritage (heritage site management, conservation, research), and a further 8 million jobs, e.g. in tourism or construction, are indirectly linked to the sector.
The job-creation potential of cultural heritage has also been confirmed by the World Bank; every million dollars invested in heritage restoration is reported to generate 31.3 new jobs, while the same amount spent on the manufacturing industry only results in 21.3 vacancies.
Contrary to popular opinion, studies also confirm the positive role of public spending on the maintenance of cultural venues and projects in boosting GDP growth and expanding the labour market. It simply pays off to invest in heritage.
Cultural heritage plays an important role in the development of human and social capital. Learning about heritage is much more than a pleasant way to while away the time; it also serves an educational purpose, allowing people to construct an image of the world around them and adopt a creative attitude toward their environment.
Importantly, cultural institutions and organizations can also function as meeting places for local communities, bringing together individuals of various ages, ethnic groups, and religious denominations. For many, visiting cultural sites is an opportunity to spend time with family and friends. In a survey conducted by Monika Murzyn-Kupisz and Jarosław Działek at the Castle of Pszczyna, respondents often indicated spending time or showing the site to family and friends (accompanied sightseeing) as the most important reasons for their visit.
Attractiveness and competitive edge
Researchers also point out the crucial importance of cultural heritage for boosting the attractiveness of towns and cities and increasing their competitive edge. Its impact goes well beyond any contribution it can make to the tourist appeal of historic towns and heritage sites.
Boosting attractiveness may also involve, for instance, using cultural heritage to create a peculiar genius loci, alluding to the past, and organising events (such as festivals) related to local history. Such actions may help increase tourist traffic, but also foster the well-being of local residents and strengthen their bond to the place. Some researchers go as far as to argue that people actually prefer the "human" scale of most historic city centres, along with their rich, diverse architecture and public space, to the modern, tidy spaces of new urban districts.
Associations with local identity and heritage may also have a major impact on investment. British researcher Gregory Ashworth has pointed out that the atmosphere of historic towns and buildings may transmit a sense of reliability or responsibility, and often suggests prestige or connection to art. German studies indicate that areas associated with cultural heritage are often treated as exclusive business locations.
A study conducted in the 19th-century cotton factory of Franciszek Ramisch, adapted for the purposes of the OFF Piotrkowska project, has demonstrated that venues located in post-industrial settings are also well-received by clients and entrepreneurs alike. For the latter, choosing a post-industrial location may even represent a crucial business tactic.
Quality of life
On a different note, direct contact with cultural heritage may also improve health and increase general life satisfaction. In a British project entitled "Heritage in Hospitals", patients who enjoyed physical contact with museum objects brought to their beds reported an improvement in the perceived quality of life, as well as a greater sense of satisfaction and better subjective health assessment.
A study conducted among the staff of the City of London, on the other hand, demonstrated that half an hour at an art gallery was enough to bring cortisol ("the stress hormone") down to levels that would otherwise take five hours to achieve.
It seems less surprising to find out that cultural heritage is also an essential element of identity. In 2013, the National Heritage Board of Poland asked respondents what they thought was the most valuable aspect of cultural heritage. As many as 62% replied that it was a testament to a shared past; 18% mentioned authenticity, 11% pointed to its material worth, and 9% spoke about aesthetics. When asked "Does the presence of cultural heritage improve the quality of life of local communities", 44% affirmed that it made them proud of their place of residence. Adults who live in regions of greater heritage density feel more connected to the area; so do adults and youth who consider a local building or monument as something special.
Last but not least, even though at first glance they seem like an unlikely match, cultural heritage actually serves to stimulate creativity and innovative thinking.
Suffice it to mention ethnic design. Innovation is the process behind, for instance, the mohohej!DIA carpet designed by Magda Lubińska and Michał Kopaniszyn. By combining traditional Goral textile manufacturing, folk paper cuts, and modern laser cutting technologies, the two designers created what turned out to be the first Polish product to win the prestigious Red Dot award, also known as the Oscar of Design. Silesia, on the other hand, has inspired the bro.Kat company to design jewellery and accessories using hard coal. Interest in original regional cuisine, as represented by Modest Amaro, has also been on the rise in recent years.
In this context, it is also worth noting the phenomenon of creative districts that sprout up around heritage sites, especially in post-industrial areas. As argued in a report prepared for the Heritage Lottery Fund, "new ideas need old buildings". The appeal of these sites can be attributed not only to a passing fad or snobbism, but also (as shown, for instance, by the studies conducted at the OFF Piotrkowska in Łódź), to their exceptional atmosphere and inspiring character. Affordable rents, and large, easily adapted spaces act as a magnet for artists and start-ups.
As we have seen, the impact of cultural heritage is never limited to one area of life; accordingly, the issue should not be studied from the narrow perspective of a single discipline. A comprehensive vision of heritage requires the cooperation of economists, sociologists, ethnologists, cultural scholars, environmental scientists, psychologists, urban planners, art historians, and even doctors. Only a truly holistic approach to the role of cultural heritage may reflect its multi-dimensional impact.
Based on the book The Power of Heritage. Socio-Economic Examples from Central Europe, ed. Joanna Sanetra-Szeliga and Katarzyna Jagodzińska