With the last few years being dominated by economic crisis, it would be expected that historical sites might struggle to find funding. The cost of running these places suddenly seems too great to the government when money is tight. However, the government is not entirely to blame as donations from visitors and private benefactors are less likely to be forthcoming as disposable incomes are squeezed. This is the theory, which seems to be playing out in Spain, Greece and Italy, if you follow The Guardian’s line. For example the paper cites Plato’s Academy in Athens, recognised as the world’s first university, which isn’t even signposted because £4,500 cannot be found to finance such a luxury.
Yet, closer to home, it was recently announced that £10 million was being invested in four UK heritage sites. The source? The National Lottery Heritage Fund. Set up in 1994, it has so far put £4.5 billion into 30,000 projects across the UK. Best of all, with government cuts hitting every area of public life, their funding comes from National Lottery ticket sales. Twenty-eight pence from every ticket is set aside for good causes, with 18% going to the Heritage Fund. With people following the banks’ example, and attempting to gamble their way out of recession, the Heritage Fund has recently received a £25 million pound a year boost.
So where is this money spent? The £10 million announced recently was set aside for Cardigan Castle in Wales, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, the Royal Crescent in Bath and Charleston Barns, Lewes. More locally, the fund provided nearly £10 million for the Hancock museum in Newcastle to be redeveloped. These large sums of money donated have raised some questions on the importance of heritage, particularly as the National Lottery Board has recently been criticised for diverting money away from charitable causes. It is claimed that money from this fund had been used to meet ministerial targets in health and education, rather than being granted to charities.
Despite this, there are a multitude of benefits provided by supporting our heritage. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, there is the economic boost provided to the area. Chairwoman of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Dame Jenny Abramsky, recently reinforced this, stating that the grant “provided local people with training and volunteering opportunities”. With private businesses cutting jobs to lower costs, perhaps opportunities provided by heritage could help fill an employment gap. It sounds like Cameron’s Big Society but in this case it actually works.
This major positive has certainly been spotted by Berkshire council who hope to gain £8 million funding for Reading Abbey. They believe that it will attract visitors, shoppers and investment into the area. Internet comments following the article announcing the funding were split, although “rogerjolly” stated eloquently that the council should “knock it down and build flats”. The contributor did follow their point up by suggesting that nobody would visit Reading to see an Abbey.
In many ways this last comment makes sense. Reading is hardly the most attractive place, notable only for being slightly less muddy than Glastonbury when it comes to festival season. Personally, a refurbished Abbey isn’t enough to encourage a visit from me. It’s hard to imagine hordes of camera-wielding Americans shouting “look honey, it’s the famous Reading Abbey”.
Yet this argument misses this point of heritage. It’s about identity. Although tourists are unlikely to be attracted to travel to Reading from afar, locals are likely to visit. School trips from the area will become standard. From being ruins in the middle of the city, locals begin to appreciate that their identity is bound up in the site. It becomes something to be proud of. Looking at the history of the Abbey this is certainly true, with Henry I – famous for having 20 illegitimate children – being buried there. Following Henry I’s death it became one of England’s most popular pilgrimage sites in the Middle Ages, only falling into disrepair during Henry’s VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
Not only does Reading Abbey seem to have an unexpectedly interesting and eventful history, it also provides economic and cultural benefits. The Abbey has recently played host to open air theatre, with performances only stopping due to the state of disrepair. Although this is unlikely to recoup the £8 million that would fund its redevelopment, it would certainly provide cultural advantages for the region.
In an age where the immigration-obsessed press talks of the fear of losing our national identity, heritage takes up a whole new level of importance. Some projects and sites will only boost identity on a local level, perhaps like Reading Abbey. Others carry a national significance, such as Stonehenge, which attracts nearly 700,000 visitors from overseas every year. The Heritage Lottery Fund committed £10 million to the Stonehenge Project just last year. There are smaller grants too, such as the £26,000 given to protect the mining heritage of County Durham. This shows that the Heritage Lottery Fund is committed to the more minute parts of our history as well as the more prominent monuments. Our heritage can bring communities together, connecting people rather than isolating them. This is a message that ought to be more prominent as austerity measures continue to be felt by the public.
More information on the plight of Greece’s ancient treasures http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/26/greece-acropolis-debt-crisis-athens?INTCMP=SRCH
Heritage Lottery Fund http://www.hlf.org.uk/Pages/Home.aspx
Criticism of the National Lottery’s charitable funding http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/5039126/Lottery-funding-for-good-causes-slumps-more-than-half.html