Emily Pitts writes:
Demos’s recently launched ‘It’s a material world’ argues for the social value of heritage conservation, at a time when budgets for conservation courses are being slashed and the future of the discipline seems threatened. It calls for a national conservation strategy that includes education in schools, involves local communities in preserving the public realm, more support from government and a call to arms directed at professionals in the conservation and cultural sectors. If we don’t make the effort to be inclusive in how we look after the public realm, they argue, and make choices collectively about what to conserve, then social capital also declines.
An increasing interest in preserving social capital and a renewed vigour in community life is something we have been tracking for a little while, and early signs are that the economic downturn is increasing the extent to which we think of collective good. According to Yankelovich Monitor, 41% of American consumers define being a good citizen as ‘Not buying a home that is larger than you really need to help reduce energy usage’ compared to 34% just a year ago. Our data from the UK, whilst not directly comparable, hints at a similar sense of personal empowerment and responsibility, with the majority of consumers agreeing with the statement ‘I feel that I can make a difference to the world around me through the choices I take and the actions I make’. Interest in community life is also strong; according to our Planning for Consumer Change survey, since 2005 more people agree that the quality of life is better improved by looking after the interests of the community than those of the individual.
With changing attitudes towards community in evidence, the time might be right for the cultural sector, and conservation in particular, to push away from the individualistic outlook of the early ’00s and emerge in the schoolrooms and town halls of every community as a mainstay of our society. But is it possible for conservators to be more professional and more inclusive of the public at the same time, as Demos asks? Resolving conflict between public priorities and those of the experts could prove tricky, but rather than seeing these clashes of opinion as either/or tradeoffs, can we instead look to them as latent energy areas for future innovation?