Towards a Beneficial World Heritage: Community Involvement in the Blaenavon Industrial Landscapeby Dominic Walker

Museum International


Conservation / Museology


Towards a Beneficial World

Heritage: Community Involvement in the Blaenavon Industrial

Landscape by Dominic Walker

Dominic Walker is a PhD candidate in Archaeology at the University of Cambridge (UK). His research aims to determinate what the role of the archaeological expert should be in contemporary society. He is currently the secretary of the Cambridge Archaeological Review.

Community involvement has become a ubiquitous element of heritage management in recent years.

These emergent collaborative practices should ideally entail professionals or academics working in a mutually beneficial partnership with other communities, possibly other professional communities, but particularly local community groups who may be profoundly affected by the decisions made about their cultural heritage.

However, the ways in which principles such as ‘collaboration’ have been interpreted in practice has varied immensely and may be more akin to ‘consultation’ or more superficial forms of inclusion (Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Ferguson, 2008a). This means that the various benefits that heritage professionals envisage when initiating projects with communities may not be forthcoming. In this article I discuss the ways in which the local community has been involved in the management of the Blaenavon Industrial World

ISSN 1350-0775, No. 249–250 (Vol. 63, No. 1–2, 2011) ª UNESCO 2012 25

Published by UNESCO Publishing and Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 5. Big Pit: National Coal Museum (Wales, UK). ª

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Heritage Site in Wales. Using this case study,

I argue that heritage professionals should engage more critically with the concerns, needs and values of local communities in order to realize economic and social aims more effectively.

The problems with multi-functional heritage

Heritage is utilized in both social and economic regeneration processes around the world.

UNESCO World Heritage listing, in particular, may be regarded as a way to achieve localized aims, often related to stimulating economic gain through tourism. However, the use of heritage in economic strategies can challenge the social benefits. For instance, industrial heritage sites often present sanitized or romanticized interpretations, rather than inciting debates about inequalities or contemporary concerns, such as whether we now have truly democratic workplaces, which might lead to social change (Uzzell; Summerby-Murray).

In fact, the social benefits of involving local communities in heritage management have been highlighted in United Kingdom heritage policy discourse since the mid-1990s, particularly in relation to the political notion of social exclusion ⁄ inclusion. Despite political movements, and other theoretical shifts that have encouraged collaborative practices (e.g., Swidler et al.), heritage professionals may be considered as remaining in a strong position of power from which they can make judgements about the relative worth of different views about heritage. Laurajane

Smith and Emma Waterton posit that heritage policy continues to be rooted in scientific positivism, which authorizes the ‘expert’ views of 6. War Memorial and Workingmen’s Institute in Blaenavon (Wales, UK). ª

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Towards a Beneficial World Heritage: Community Involvement in the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape

Dominic Walker

ISSN 1350-0775, No. 249–250 (Vol. 63, No. 1–2, 2011) 27 professionals and in turn allows them to consider alternative, local viewpoints as irrelevant or merely a footnote in a mainstream version of heritage that values the monumental and aesthetically pleasing features of heritage.

I contend that this position of authority has been somewhat diminished in recent years – at least in the United Kingdom. English Heritage, for instance, has begun to accept the views of non-heritage-professionals as of equal worth to that of heritage professionals (see English

Heritage, pp. 13–15). Nevertheless, the problems with dealing with different types of value may be exacerbated in the case of UNESCO World

Heritage Sites. First, ‘universal value’ is added as a contesting value at World Heritage Sites; and second, they may also act as a focus for a government’s efforts to encourage economic or social regeneration (at a local, regional or national level). UNESCO has attempted to emphasize people and cultural values in conventions and 7. Upland natural landscape inscribed within the Blaenavon world heritage site. ª

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UNDERSTANDING AND THEORIZING THE CHANGE 28 Published by UNESCO Publishing and Blackwell Publishing Ltd. guidelines in recent years (UNESCO, 1994a, 2003), but it is still possible to identify numerous sites where the needs and values of local people are excluded in favour of preserving the aesthetic or historic for tourist consumption (e.g., de Merode et al.). Moreover, there is often no direct access for local communities to the decision-making process in World Heritage management. This being the case, we must ask how the conservation of universal values at World Heritage Sites may be made commensurable with addressing local viewpoints. Is it possible for social benefits to emerge from World Heritage management, or can it produce merely the economic benefits related to tourism? Moreover, what role should the heritage industry professional play in all of this?

Blaenavon: revolution to regeneration

The ‘outstanding universal value’ of the Blaenavon

Industrial Landscape lies in its comprising well-preserved evidence of the social, economic and technological processes of industrialization, particularly in relation to nineteenth-century developments (Blaenavon Partnership, 1999). The 32.9 km2 World Heritage landscape encapsulates numerous individual sites, wherein the major visitor attraction is the Big Pit – a coalmine sunk in 1880 but now serving as a national coalmining museum. Other notable elements are: the town itself, the Workmen’s Hall, built in 1894 (and still in regular community use), the Ironworks and the upland natural landscape.