Jousting, Wizards And The Future Of UK Heritage

06/09/2016 10:09 | Updated 06 September 2016

Charities in general face a constant struggle to make themselves seem vital. And, for heritage charities focussed on history, presenting themselves as being relevant to contemporary society is particularly challenging.

Recently, one of the largest heritage charities in the UK has come to public attention for its controversial projects.

In February 2016, English Heritage was accused of 'vandalising' the Cornish coastline by commissioning a sculpture of the face of Merlin whom, according to legend, lived at the nearby Tintagel Castle. The project drew criticism from local residents, who resented this interpretation of their heritage.

And again, in August this year, English Heritage once again made its way into national headlines (and with some degree of ridicule) for making clear that its bid to have jousting considered as an Olympic sport was, in fact, serious.

So really, it's easy to see why the public might come to view notions of heritage as purely whimsical.

However, the impact that heritage charities have on our economy is a serious matter. In the first major assessment of its impact on the UK 'bottom line', the Heritage Lottery Fund revealed that the heritage industry contributes £7.4 billion to the UK economy and is responsible for creating 195,000 jobs. The UK's history motivates around 30% of international trips, generating wider revenue for the UK Tourism industry.

There are few industries, and few types of charities, which could be said to bring such a benefit to the wider UK economy and which have such a widespread effect on shaping identity and education. The differences of the past and the present don't always mean we can translate our history into something that immediately relates to the modern day and some attempts to tap into modern life appear to be more about getting noticed than proving relevance.

The heritage industry has proven its relevance to British people by creating jobs, creating interest in British culture, generating huge revenues and maintaining historic landmarks. However, by courting headlines about jousting and wizards, perhaps English Heritage risks undermining this work, and allowing heritage to be considered "dumbed-down, populist trash" rather than something that enriches our everyday lives and an essential part of all of our identities as UK citizens.

Surely, heritage charities can ensure that they are both acting in the public benefit and making the most compelling case for funding support without too much PR frivolity? The promotion of heritage doesn't have to be serious but it should, at the very least, be true to itself. After all, surely all of our heritage charities would benefit from headlines about impact, rather than those that invite ridicule.