What is the value of marine cultural heritage? Indeed, what is the value of cultural heritage, or more broadly even, culture? I have been interested in these questions since I decided to study Museum Studies in 2008, and they are still relevant now that I am looking at what marine cultural heritage (MCH) can contribute to social, economic and cultural development challenges in eastern Africa. Obviously, I am not the first person to ask these questions and I will definitely not be the last, as the answers are varied and dependent on who you ask. The fact that cultural heritage (and MCH by extension) is valuable to our lives is often not at issue, but how we go about demonstrating these values is. How do you measure inspiration, a change of mind, an eye-opening moment, a rekindled memory, or a feeling of belonging? It may be slightly easier to measure the value of cultural heritage for education or for social cohesion but even that can result in ‘vague’ statements if it goes beyond the number of visitors and school visits. Currently, the emphasis lies on the economic benefits of cultural heritage, and most methodologies use quantifiable metrics such as what visitors to heritage sites contributed to the economy, how many jobs have been created in the creative sector or how much the cultural sector participates in the tourism industry. Indeed, the methodology manual for the UNESCO Culture for Development Indicators states that: ‘The notion of heritage is important for culture and development insofar as it constitutes the ‘cultural capital’ of contemporary societies’ (2014, 130). But is that really all that cultural heritage does? How can we put in place measurements for the non-quantifiable stuff that is perhaps key to understanding why cultural heritage is so important for society, for us as human beings? Working as a post-doc at Rising from the Depths has made me think even more about the challenge of understanding the importance of MCH, because in a development context it is even more pertinent to justify why money is being spent on preserving, researching and presenting MCH. On top of that, our network is specifically looking at the benefits MCH can bring to development, which means thinking about the different ways in which MCH can contribute to society is integral. While an increasing number of publications have started to criticise the ways in which development is being tied to economic growth and being measured in terms of contributions to GDP (although a number of indexes and measurement tools have started to move away from this) it is still by far the largest component of justifying overseas development aid funding. In my ideal world, we would turn away completely from thinking about cultural heritage in economic terms and consider the intrinsic qualities of the sites, traditions and materials that we want to keep for the future. Personally, cultural heritage does not have to be a resource for making money to enjoy it, but with my obvious interests and background that might just be me. But since I can’t live in my daydreams, I am now looking at how we can measure social, economic and cultural impact delivered by MCH projects. I don’t have any answers yet but the hope is that as the Rising from the Depths project progresses we will start to learn more about the diverse effects of MCH in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Madagascar through the individual projects that have been funded. We will trial evaluation methods based on Theory of Change to find out how we can best create evidence of the benefits of MCH in eastern Africa, and particularly how it can help to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. As a network of scholars from all disciplines we are happy to hear from other people and initiatives grappling with these concepts, so if you want to get in touch feel free to do so! This is very much an on-going conversation and we will be updating this blog as we go along.
Thank you for reading,