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Cultural heritage is an asset, not a liability - Professor Simon Thurley

Restoring historical buildings takes courage and confidence, according to Professor Simon Thurley. Image courtesy: S. Thurley
Restoring historical buildings takes courage and confidence, according to Professor Simon Thurley. Image courtesy: S. Thurley

Investing in cultural heritage will help strengthen Europe’s economy, with the benefits extending far beyond tourism, according to Professor Simon Thurley, former chief executive of English Heritage and senior research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, London, UK.

Prof. Thurley is rapporteur for the Horizon 2020 expert group on cultural heritage, whose report, ‘Getting cultural heritage to work for Europe’, was presented to Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, on 19 June.

How does cultural heritage benefit Europe’s economy?

‘I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that most people would see heritage as something that makes a positive economic contribution, rather than just a negative one. Sometimes the positive economic contribution can be measured very straightforwardly. You take a beautiful, old 19th-century theatre and you spend a huge amount of money restoring it, and it becomes very successful and it starts generating income, you can see that on the profit and loss.

‘But equally - and I think this is perhaps more important – people now look at the wider economic effects of heritage. So, you take a little village somewhere up in the mountains in southern Europe, it’s in a mess, you spend money – private owners spend money, municipalities spend some money – and suddenly it becomes a destination for tourists. Perhaps individual balance sheets look a little bit feeble but the general economic activity that it is bringing to the area is easily measurable as really having quite a big impact.’

Outside of tourism, does cultural heritage contribute to the wider economy?

‘Yes, very much so. What we’re increasingly seeing is old shops and restaurants being restored for their heritage value and people finding them more attractive as a consequence and, therefore, margins improve, sales volume improves and everybody gets richer.

'We should make a more formal recognition that heritage is in fact a production factor in the economy.'

Professor Simon Thurley, Institute of Historical Research, UK

‘The same goes actually for businesses. What is very marked at the moment is the new tech industries really like being in old industrial buildings in particular, and they tend to set up in these old industrial complexes, bringing them back into use and, of course, lots of young, well-paid, high-spending people bringing economic activity into an area.

‘There’s an extraordinary early 20th-century factory complex just outside Rotterdam, which is illustrated in the report, and it’s a very good example of something that looked like a big burden and liability and has ended up being the foundation of an incredibly prosperous Rotterdam.’

In 2016-17, over €100 million for research and innovation in the field of cultural heritage will be available under Horizon 2020, the EU's research funding programme. What role can research and innovation play in promoting cultural heritage?

‘We have a situation at the moment where some parts of Europe have got the point and have realised that you can actually do some extremely innovative things with things that are apparently old and washed up. Other areas just haven’t got it at all.

‘Very often it’s a lack of confidence. In order to take a broken, old building in the centre of town and do something very innovative and exciting with it, you need courage and you need confidence. Because it might just seem the best thing to do is to knock it down and redevelop it. We need to find ways of identifying places which have strong heritage potential and helping the municipalities, the owners, the developers, to innovate.’

What is the key message of your report?

‘It’s really suggesting how we can build on the very good and exciting things that have been done in some parts of Europe and try to get it replicated elsewhere. There are still lots of places with very strong cultural heritage – whether it be museums, or streetscapes, or castles, or churches, or palaces – which have not yet cottoned on to that. We somehow have got to get these places understanding that they have got assets here and not liabilities.

‘Our point really is that we should make a more formal recognition that heritage is in fact a production factor in the economy. It’s not just about culture, it’s about economics.’

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