Transformation Issue 1

Prosperity, posterity and provenance

Words By: Taryn Nixon, Chief Executive of Museum of London Archaeology

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In an era of pressing demand for housing and infrastructure, heritage could not be more important in protecting the embedded value that lies within our communities. Heritage is arguably the most powerful basis from which a place’s future resilience and prosperity can be forged.

Archaeology can unlock that value. Yet, since being integrated within the planning process in 1990, archaeology is often constrained as a risk management process, aiming to provide swift, safe, contractual services with minimum impact on a development’s critical path.

Perhaps this is an overly narrow perception from archaeologists of what drives developers? 

The development sector spends well over £150m on direct archaeological costs each year, according to the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists. So it is a tragic missed opportunity if this money spent on studying the heritage of our towns and cities is not used to add value to developments.

Working at their best – together – the archaeology and development sectors can harness archaeology and local histories to inspire and involve community investment in place. In essence this is creating resilient, sustainable cultural capital. Neglect a place’s unique heritage legacy, and that capital is instantly lost. 

Our challenge as archaeologists, therefore, is to uncover what really makes a place special and distinctive. By involving and helping people connect with their heritage and feel as if they are rooted somewhere – that they belong – we inspire a will to invest, literally and emotionally, in their own community.

It is well documented that such an ethos pays dividends. The value of distinctiveness to our future is explored compellingly in The World Bank’s Economics of Uniqueness. The economist Robert Solow, famed for his long-term economic growth model, observed, “Over the long-term, places with strong, distinctive identities are more likely to prosper than places without them. Every place must identify its strongest, most distinctive features and develop them, or run the risk of being all things to all persons and nothing special to any... Liveability is not a middle-class luxury. It is an economic imperative.” 

After the 1981 race riots in Brixton, London (pictured, left), Lord Scarman commented: “When people feel they ‘belong’ to a neighbourhood which is theirs through their own efforts, then it will become a place…worth struggling to retain and develop.” 

How does archaeology help? An archaeologist’s business is studying what makes somewhere special – examining people and their relationship with places through what they have (often accidentally and randomly) left behind. Archaeology unearths new knowledge and provides authentic and distinctive, often personal stories that are the basis for community identities. This focus on provenance responds to our very human need to connect to other human stories and understand how we belong.

When developers recognise discoveries as authentic messages and connections with place, then they understand, truly, what makes a place distinctive, and these are the developments that work, through partnership, to build resilience and are embraced by local communities.

We all need to belong. More inclusive and representative public involvement in understanding our historical environment not only unleashes a creative power in us all, it carries a sense of ownership into the future. And it is a sure route to making new development more popular.

Distinctive, cherished places will thrive into the future, nurtured and invested in by prouder, more engaged people. Indeed, a community’s connection to place is at the very heart of resilience. Heritage, and professions such as archaeology, can help developers to unlock that long-term value, that connection to place, while still minimising risk.

Taryn Nixon, Chief Executive of Museum of London Archaeology, expanded on these views at U+I Think, a series of events to question the everyday and inspire extraordinary thinking

This article appeared in Issue 1 - Transformation

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