FROM: Dicks, B. (2003) 'Heritage, Governance and Marketization: a Case study from Wales', in Museum and Society, 1 (1): 30 -- 44.
[This interesting case study pursues the struggles over the development of a particular heritage site, and shows the importance of local political alliances in defining what counts as heritage, especially given the particular framework in Britain of 'partnership' financing. There are clear links with the material on the Third Way --e.g. this file].
Heritage production involves social relations, including relations with locals. There is a need to make the site look authentic for visitors and for locals, for example -- locals are 'an increasingly insistent' player, especially where they 'own' the history in question (30). Further, heritage professionals rely on local testimony to generate the popular stories it uses to make sense of the attraction. As a result, locals, and their political organizations, are an important mediator of market forces. The local dimension reminds us that resources can be steered towards one heritage site only at the expense of another. The specific issues are as important as the general critiques or ideologies.
The case-study in question concerns a struggle over some famous coal mines in the Rhondda and Taff Ely area of Wales (both of these areas were represented by borough councils with rather different political views). As these mines closed, various options were discussed on turning them into heritage sites. The main political players were the Welsh Office, dominated by Westminster, and the local political organizations and communities. The first initiatives came from those local communities of ex-miners, but as the scheme developed and required resources and regulation, the formal political organizations became increasingly involved. The project similarly changed in its conception from 'a small, local, loss-making and publicly funded heritage museum' to a 'flagship entrepreneurial and wealth- generating project'. (31). The Welsh Office in particular saw the project as a chance to demonstrate community regeneration through enterprise and public-private partnership. Opposition to that project shows the impact of local politics, and tells us a lot about specific dimensions of 'heritage'.
Dicks studied the history of the founding and development of the project, involving interviewing with local gatekeepers, analysed the audio-visual shows, and interviewed 20 visitor groups and guides. Focus groups were run with local residents. A useful theoretical link can be made with Hall on the encoding and decoding of cultural texts.
Government became interested in using heritage to do cultural planning and urban regeneration in the 1970s and 1980s, linked to notions of 'entrepreneurialism, competitiveness and privatisation' (32). Although public sector funding was involved, 'the rhetoric, priorities and strategies of the market' came to dominate management (32). This commercialization led to a number of prominent criticisms, including those of Hewison. One aspect of the criticism turned on whether or not heritage offered authentic history, and some counter critics were able to argue that it did offer the possibility of resistance. [Samuel, R. (1994) Theatres of Memory, London: Verso looks particularly good].
Critical debates in the 1990s focused instead on local social and political relations in economic regeneration, and included debates over things such as redevelopment of wasteland and gentrification. The struggles over 'place identities' were typically linked to social class differences.
In the case of heritage projects, there were too many different kinds to generalize. For example, some were more controversial locally than others: those distant in space and time from local issues are less controversial. On a more specific level, local opinion can be expressed in different political systems, reminding us not to 'romantic[ize] a notion of popular protest' (33), simply diametrically opposed to those interests in marketization.
Marketization itself varies, according to the actual mix of private and public sector funding and control. In particular, there is now a 'competitive bidding system' [encouraged by the Lottery?]. Initially, there was hardly any private money at stake, but rather 'a powerful discourse of the market' to revitalize public administration (33). The usual terms refer to both partnership and enterprise, but these are still general terms, put into practice locally in a complex way, involving different agencies and other groups. Claims to power are based both on market values and also local democratic ones, and notions of 'local identity, authenticity, representativeness and tradition. In other words, Heritage has to be "marketed" to local residents too' (34). Heritage is particularly difficult to grasp as a simple commodity, unlike other cultural artifacts such as 'images, objects, landscapes and buildings' (34).
In the Rhondda, coal-mining was in serious decline in the 1980s. The debate about regeneration discussed re industrialization on the one hand, and ' a service-sector oriented solution' on the other (34). The issue of resources ruled out the former. Initially, the UK Welsh Office managed intervention through advocating free-market values, packaging various policy initiatives, including a renewal of leisure and tourism. Partnerships with the private sector were encouraged, involving local authorities contributing to funding as well, especially in tourism. The Rhondda project was one such 'flagship' attraction (35). Local councils would bid competitively for funds.
The Rhondda Heritage Park emerged out of a project to preserve the colliery as a mining museum. Local mining enthusiasts rapidly lost out to 'local councils and Welsh Office quangos' (35), and their enthusiasm remained only as local support for local government planning initiatives. For example, local people were not allowed to actually provide displays and exhibits, despite their offer to do so and consultants were engaged instead. Applications for funds to the next layer of government up produced further modification as the project became part of the more general tourism strategy( which involved bidding for national funds) -- the consultants soon recommended a large scale 'multiplex leisure development', owned by a consortium.
The consultancy model was already well-established in the Welsh Development Agency and expressed 'a new managerial philosophy' to replace the old local amateurism. It became essentail for professional funding. However, local involvement and local knowledge became devalued. The resulting project was seen as a 'massive three-site development', combining the original mining museum with other attractions such as 'country parks, a ski slope, chairlift, forest walk and camp, a retail development, a railway museum and a steam train to connect all parts' (38). The intention was to 'forge a new set of place-myths for the Rhondda', instead of preserving the old mining values.
However, the grand project proved too ambitious. There were planning delays, a lack of private investment, and divisions inside the management consortium. In particular, a local competition between the boroughs and other layers of political systems developed. Borough councils in general did not like the large plan, and they began to compete among themselves as development seem to favour first one area and then the other. As partners, the councils also attracted local political activity and critical press coverage. National political parties became interested as well, and Plaid Cymru campaigned against a heritage park with increasing success. Eventually, funding was made conditional on market values, and this seemed to disadvantage one borough council in particular (Taff Ely).
In order to generate revenue, the consortium opened existing buildings -- the colliery -- which further privileged Rhondda Borough Council. However, visitor numbers were low [ 'Since there were few interpretative facilities' (39) -- I would like to see evidence for this]. The Labour Party had been associated with the colliery project and 'coalfield culture', hence it became opposed by other parties, and Plaid Cymru gained seats in the Taff Ely Borough Council, partly on a pledge to withdraw from the project. The funding package collapsed. What was left was the original idea of the 'small and bounded museum' based on the colliery.
'In this sense, marketization failed because it forced the borough councils to treat the local heritage as if it were a commodity which... threw them into competition with each other' (40). Marketization also weakened local public support by going for the general appeal to 'as wide a number of people as possible', at the expense of the 'local memorial aspect' (40). Money was spent on national marketing and national consultants instead of local research: what remained was a collection of 'colourful stories from the very group of mining enthusiasts that had originally been pushed aside' (40). As the grand plan collapsed, issues of local authenticity became crucial, and consultants were urged to employ a local historian. The result is a celebration of an 'activist Rhondda community', which is 'romanticized' but also 'recognizable' to locals (40).
The struggles now seem to have been settled, and there are some more general leisure activities at the site. Local people sometimes bring 'relatives from the far flung Rhondda diaspora' (40), and locals are now more appreciative. Even once-vocal opponents are now employed as guides.
Local knowledge was celebrated, but only through the mediation of a local historian. The 'people's story', with all its complexity, is still absent. The 'sponsors' allegiance to the values of enterprise and place marketing' seem to have won out (41). However, the full 'rational market ideal' was not successful, and the 'local social sphere "bit back"' (41). Political competition seems to have been an unwelcome aspect of entrepreneurial competition.
Heritage must appeal to locals as well as to sponsors, which prevents full marketization. Local political and cultural involvement prevents simple commodification [for now]. This contradiction is not usually recognised in the general enthusiasm for heritage 'as the glue that can magically stick together the values of the market and the public sphere' (41). The Rhondda Heritage Park has not been a particular economic success either -- but 'what the area does now "possess" is a heavily capitalized, popular and informative show case for local mining history' (42).
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