Abu Simbel, Egypt

Heritage at risk

Government spending cuts and rushed legislation within the cultural heritage sector are leading to a “devastating” loss of vital expertise, and to human activity that has the potential to “destroy” heritage irreparably, a new report by the British Academy has revealed. 

The report ‘History for the Taking? Perspectives on Material Heritage’ urges the government not to gamble with protecting cultural history.  The areas that are seen as at most risk are archaeology and built heritage. University of Exeter archaeologist, Professor Anthony Harding joined with experts from the British Museum and the National Trust in exposing these particular elements of concern

Professor Harding said, “Recent events in Egypt and Libya have focused attention on the problem of antiquities being looted from ancient sites and illegally entering the world market-place. When this situation occurs a number of unscrupulous dealers and private collectors trade in them, thereby encouraging more looting to take place.”

He added, “Illegal pillaging of ancient sites is wrong, but the difficult question is, what scholars should do with such objects that have no provenance and are probably looted. They may be very important historically, but studying and publishing them may add to their value in the market-place. This dilemma is one that all scholars have to face up to – publish and ignore the consequences, or refuse to have anything to do with such objects.”

The report reveals:

  • the threat to the historic environment posed by the coalition government’s desire to liberate the economy from “red tape” and extend planning powers to neighbourhood level
  • the loss of essential heritage expertise following extensive cuts in the number of conservation officers employed in local government
  • the growing threats to UK archaeology with 90% of all investigations carried out in England since 1990 now being undertaken by commercial organisations (and less than 10% of those reaching final publication)
  • the well-documented but under-addressed risks to cultural heritage in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan
  • the ethical dilemmas and issues for scholars handling antiquities of dubious provenance

Recommendations are made by the authors John Curtis (British Museum), Fiona Reynolds (National Trust) Michael Fulford (University of Reading) and Professor Harding to address each area of concern. The recommendation includes the development of a formal framework for localism, a ratification of the Hague Convention and the setting up of an effective system for ensuring the completion and publication of archaeological projects undertaken during the planning process.

Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe CBE FBA, Chair of the History for the Taking Working Group said: “Heritage tourism generates over £20 billion of GDP annually and makes a bigger contribution to the UK economy than car manufacturing and advertising, and yet is always the easy option for cost saving in national and local governments.

“Britain has an extraordinary cultural heritage to be proud of and needs to set an example of best practice in protecting it for future generations. This is far too important an issue to be left in the care of busy politicians unaided by sound academic advice.”

Date: 24 May 2011

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