Heritage – that expensive, inspiring, prestigious and self-evidently good part of human endeavour – is increasingly having to justify itself in the cold light of cost cuts. Heritage as the creation of excellence for its own sake is no longer enough. It must give something back. To focus on this question, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) is hosting a conference today and tomorrow in London. I have a lot of time for this fund: it gave the Auckland Castle project in County Durham, which I chair, a major grant last year.
The HLF is calling for heritage to engage with social need. This represents a return to its roots: the British Museum was founded in 1753 with the express purpose of improving people, and that attitude was amplified in the 19th century. Octavia Hill, one of the pioneers in a movement that created the National Trust, imagined a way of providing “an armchair in the countryside” for those who dwelt in city slums – a beautiful phrase which gave moral impetus to a great institution. Today, we are reluctant to talk so simply, lest it appear paternalistic, but really heritage is the exact opposite of that. It works because the love of beauty is both powerful and democratic; it is no respecter of persons. It can provide the necessary circuit-breaker to lift dreary lives from the bootlace to the stars, and thus is wholly different from a dynamic where outsiders, intent on doing good, thrust a blessing on unwilling hearts and minds.