Valuing the Historic Environment

Valuing the Historic Environment: approaches to social and communal values

I have an ongoing programme of research focusing on the contemporary social and communal values associated with the historic environment, including its contribution to people’s sense of identity, memory, and belonging. Value is central to how aspects of the historic environment are designated, managed and conserved as heritage. For much of the twentieth century this was primarily linked to what have been seen as intrinsic historic, aesthetic and scientific values. More recently there has been increasing emphasis, in both public policy and conservation practice, on the social values derived from active use of the historic environment. There are considerable difficulties surrounding how these different kinds of value should be weighed up against one another. This is exacerbated by a lack of understanding about social value, which falls largely outside of the kinds of expert knowledge traditionally associated with the heritage sector. Furthermore, social value is not readily captured by quantitative methods or easily subjected to instrumental forms of cost-benefit analysis.

My research focuses on the following questions:

  • How is social value defined and approached in the heritage sector and what kinds of contexts and agendas is it associated with? What are the barriers in terms of institutional values, expertise, time and resources?
  • To what extent has it been treated as a more superficial or instrumental value, and how has it been weighed up in relation to forms of historic, aesthetic and scientific value, which are still often considered to be more intrinsic?
  • What kinds of methodologies are best suited to addressing social and communal values? Is there a place for quantitative, attitudinal or economic forms of modelling? Or are qualitative methodologies that facilitate robust narrative accounts more effective? If so how might these be adapted to ‘real-world’ heritage contexts?
  • Finally, is an emphasis on the identification of values conceptually problematic in regard to these fluid contemporary forms of engagement? Would a focus on processes of valuing the historic environment associated with modes of embodied experience and practice be more appropriate?

This research theme has been supported though two main sub-projects:

Valuing the Historic Environment: A Critical Review of Existing Approaches to Social Value (2014-15)

This project was supported by the AHRC through the Cultural Value Project and carried out in my former position at the University of Manchester. The research resulted in a report (Jones and Leech 2016) and a journal article (Jones 2016). I also provided advice to Historic Scotland (now Historic Environment Scotland) as part of the review conducted in preparation of the new Historic Environment Strategy for Scotland, Our Place in Time.

PI: Siân Jones; Research Assistant: Steven Leech

Wrestling with social value: an examination of methods and approaches for heritage management and conservation (a MATCH Collaborative Doctoral Project, 2018-2020)

This collaborative doctoral project is designed to address the problems, challenges and opportunities surrounding the assessment of social values in heritage conservation. A significant barrier is the lack of appropriate methods and associated expertise within heritage organisations, which undermines understanding of social values. The aim is therefore to develop and trial a suite of rapid qualitative methods for examining social values in a variety of ‘real-world’ heritage contexts. The resulting evidence-base will be used to identify a methodological ‘toolkit’ that can both meet the needs of the heritage conservation profession and deepen our understanding of the social value of the historic environment.

Project team: The research is being carried out by Liz Robson (starting Jan 2018), with a supervisory team of Siân Jones, Judith Anderson, Peter Matthews and Karen Robertson.

In addition this research theme directly informs my contribution to the ACCORD Project.