Who owns the past?

Type: Think Pieces Written by | Saturday 1 January 2000

We should privatize the past. We should take control of the nation's cultural treasures out of the hands of bureaucratic 'professionals' and give it to enthusiastic independents. That is the view of Andrew Selkirk in his Adam Smith Institute book, Who Owns the Past?

Selkirk, editor of the journal Current Archaeology - which is much favoured by amateur and independent archaeologists - advocates the use of Independence Impact Statements as part of a drive to end the stuffy pseudo-professional capture of Britain's Arts and Heritage. The plan would ensure that the needs of local and amateur artists and enthusiasts were considered in everything from planning archaeological digs to operatic productions.

Archaeology provides a useful case study. The rise of state involvement and public expenditure since 1973 has crowded out amateur research. Independence Impact Statements would require an account of how local amateurs - who are often much more knowledgeable about local history and archaeology than many so-called professionals - will be involved before any state money is used to finance any future projects. Unwillingness to co-operate with independent amateus would result in a cutback in public funding.

This in turn would bring back the talents and enthusiasms of the huge unpaid army of people who would like to help and participate in what is, after all, their own heritage, their own arts and their own environment.

The bureaucracies of Europe are particularly dismissive of the contribution that amateurs can make. The Council of Europe's Cultural Heritage Division poses perhaps the biggest threat to Britain's independent experts. In the Council of Europe's brave new world, only government specialists will be allowed to interpret the past. And the World Heritage Sites programme of UNESCO is producing over-visiting of the most precious sites, while blocking any sympathetic changes that would help them to cope: for example, minor planning applications have been refused along Hadrian's Wall, which is now being degraded visibly by increased numbers of 'wall walkers'.