What do historical sites mean to contemporary communities?
For over a decade, Professor Siân Jones has been carrying out research on the social significance and authenticity of heritage sites.
The research, involving collaboration with state heritage organisations, has helped to change conservation policy and practice.
This means that there is greater attention to the impact on contemporary communities.
Providing an important sense of attachment and identity
Historic monuments and sites do not exist in a vacuum. They play a profound role in the lives of local communities, providing an important sense of attachment and identity.
Our research on social significance has fed into conservation policy and practice. State conservation bodies have adopted new practices, so that their conservation strategies do not neglect the subtle social influence of a heritage site for contemporary communities.
The research has contributed to:
- defining and developing methods for capturing and assessing social values;
- greater awareness about issues surrounding intangible social significance among policymakers, case workers, architects, interpreters and conservators;
- Historic Scotland’s recent development of a new Historic Environment Strategy for Scotland through a formal discussion paper;
- recognition of social value in revised policy guidance on the conservation of carved stone monuments in Scotland (e.g. medieval crosses and cross slabs, market crosses, grave slabs);
- revised guidelines for the assessment of cultural significance more generally to include social and communal value.
Professor Jones and her colleagues focused on a range of important sites and monuments, including the internationally significant Hilton of Cadboll cross-slab, and applied a variety of research approaches. Key findings:
- archaeological monuments inform people’s sense of identity and place in a complex and dynamic manner;
- local communities make increasingly vocal claims to ownership of heritage sites, not just due to their perceived economic value, but also based on feelings of attachment;
- places thought to have relatively minor academic and historical significance may be extremely important in terms of social significance;
- social significance may not be obvious in the physical fabric of sites and may remain latent in daily practices and long-term associations with place until threatened;
- the long-term biographies of historic buildings and monuments are an important source of identity, memory and sense of place, at times involving spiritual attachment;
- the relationships between objects, people and places are crucial to the experience of authenticity so conservation and management must nurture these complex links.