What are values worth?

‘Values’ have become a buzzword in heritage management. It can mean everything, from beliefs to monetary worth. But does that make it a more or less useful term?

There are many types of value. Some people believe a place or object’s value is tied up in its price; others speak of sentimental value or of its worth for scholars and researchers. This is why it has become popular in recent years. By protecting and enhancing the aspects of a heritage asset that cause people to value it, it is possible to change heritage assets in a way that can improve them and allow them to be used further in future.

But this very flexibility can be confusing – if anything can be valued in many ways, how do we pin down a ‘heritage’ value? Is it the economic worth of a rare artefact? Or the social value of a park or cinema? Or the aesthetic contribution made by a house front as the inside is gutted?

Values are immaterial, immeasurable – just like heritage itself. The more complex it is to define why something is heritage and another thing is not, the more difficult it becomes to decide what particular parts of heritage should be enhanced and which should be left. By using the terminology of social or communal values (as in, for example, Historic England’s 2008 Conservation Principles) heritage professionals seek to show that they are considering what impact heritage has on the people around it, whose lives will be affected by its care. It demonstrates responsibility and an awareness of the ethical implications of heritage decision-making.

There are still problems with the more flexible values-based approach, however. If we offer ambiguity, we demand that choices are made in heritage management. If a building will have improved social and economic value if it is given a lift and disabled-accessible ramps but these will threaten the historic fabric which give it its archaeological value, which should be prioritised? If a heritage asset has strong aesthetic value because of its surroundings, is it acceptable to develop infrastructure in these surroundings because the economic potential of the land is greater than the value of its beauty?

In these situations, the decision-makers are not always the people who have to live with the results. Archaeological experts prioritise historic value; business developers prioritise economic values; local communities may priorities economic, social or aesthetic values according to their personal tastes. To arbitrate between them requires the kind of diplomacy not always known to experts in specific heritage management skills. If we do not change the values we understand, the values we place highest, why do we change our language to make it appear that we want to consider the views of others?


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