By Kate Clark

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Looking after a heritage site would appear to be pretty straightforward. Keep any buildings in good repair using traditional repair techniques. Mow the grass. Install some tasteful interpretative signage for visitors and maybe a discreet shop. But is that all? What happens when the local community takes offense at the site's interpretation—or a developer wants to build a shopping center adjacent to the site? Perhaps the marketing manager of the organization responsible for the site wants a bigger shop to increase revenue. Or the last battle reenactment event went wrong and blew a hole in a historic wall. Or the site's ecologist has brought vital roof repairs to a halt because of endangered bats.

Managing heritage sites is more complicated than it seems, in part because such places come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. They may be town centers, landscapes, or underwater sites. Sites can range from a crop mark invisible to the naked eye to a vast stately home, an industrial complex, or an open area, full of ruined buildings and remains. Visitors may be welcomed at some, while others may be closed to the public.

What separates the management of heritage sites from other forms of property management is that the fundamental purpose of cultural heritage management should be to preserve the values ascribed to a site—be they aesthetic or historical or social. Heritage sites are not simply visitor attractions, there to provide customer satisfaction and a reasonable profit. Such places are defined by the values we attach to them. Value is what justifies their protection in the first place, and it is the basis of any public support and grant aid—or of the restrictions placed on them. Indeed, conservation, at its most basic, is about a declaration of public interest in property, be it private or government owned.

Conservation Management Plans

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Many people who are responsible for historic places manage them by the seat of their pants—they know a site well, there may not be much money, and decisions need to be made quickly. Nevertheless, heritage organizations are increasingly recognizing that they need a more formal management planning process, usually in the form of a written conservation management plan. This is especially important when they need to be accountable for public money or have to reconcile potentially conflicting interests.

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At its simplest, a conservation management plan is a document that sets out the significance—or values—of a site and how that significance will be retained in any future use, alteration, repair, or development. The plan development process usually involves several stages, which include understanding the site, assessing values, looking at issues or vulnerability (e.g., condition), and identifying policies and strategy. Sometimes the plan will be accompanied by an impact assessment of a particular strategy. The entire planning process should begin with the identification of stakeholders, which includes all the groups with an interest in the site.

Value or significance lies at the heart of a conservation management plan. Such plans are only one part of a cycle of managing value, which begins with research and designation and then involves planning, impact assessment, and, finally, monitoring.

When a site is selected for preservation, it is usually because it is outstanding in some way—for instance, as something very old, beautiful, or historically important. But in order to manage a site on a day-to-day basis successfully, you usually have to take into account a much wider bandwidth of values. This is why it is important for conservation management planning to be sensitive to issues such as community concerns.

For example, an English cathedral may be a highly significant piece of architecture, but it is also a spiritual place that requires a living community to sustain it. Its importance goes well beyond the narrow designated values. Speaking at a conference on conservation planning, the former dean of Hereford Cathedral declared that "Hereford Cathedral's history is much older in human terms than any of the building's fabric, and my first responsibility is to the care of that human community. I need to protect the life of cathedral organists and masons, singers and librarians, schoolteachers, archivists, and vergers, and to emphasize that heritage resides in the pattern of their lives, in their liturgies, in their scholarship, in their singing. All those things have to be understood by the person who is to help develop and manage the change of that heritage."

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Values also need to be considered in making particular decisions. The process of impact assessment can be used to decide the best options for a site. An understanding of values and how particular decisions will impact them is central to the process. For instance, in spring 2001 at Manassas, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., the U.S. National Park Service conducted a value analysis study focused on one of only three surviving structures located on the site of one of the most important battlefields of the U.S. Civil War. The objective of the value study was to develop several different preservation approaches to the structure, to evaluate them, and then to select the alternative "that would best serve the public, the park, and the resource."

All of this may seem like common sense, but for many organizations, the move toward more value-led planning means rethinking how things are done.

Value-Led Planning

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Site management planning is, of course, nothing new. In his history of how nature has been preserved in the U.S. National Park system, Richard Sellars notes that it was as early as 1910 that the secretary of the interior called for complete and comprehensive plans for national parks. The Park Service, which had to tread a difficult line between nature conservation and enabling people to enjoy places, developed a formal planning system to balance these two objectives. The natural model was then broadly adopted for cultural heritage sites.

In recent decades, there has been something of a reversal of this process. Some of the ideas coming out of heritage management are beginning to influence the way natural sites are managed.

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One important influence has been the changes in heritage practice that are, at least in part, a consequence of Australia's Burra Charter. In 1979 members of Australia ICOMOS came together at a small mining town called Burra, in South Australia. Frustrated by the European heritage charters, which were typically based on traditional ideas about value, inappropriate in an Australian context, they developed an alternative. The 1981 Burra Charter—which emphasizes the process of decision making more than the formal rules—places significance or value at the center of conservation: "Conservation of a place should take into consideration all aspects of its cultural significance without unwarranted emphasis on any one at the expense of others." Using the principles in the Charter, James Kerr wrote a practical guide to writing conservation plans, and as a result conservation planning is now well established in the Australian system.

This emphasis on discovering significance as part of the planning process chimes with the sustainable development of natural sites. The 1992 Rio Conference on Sustainable Development noted that development and nature conservation should work together, rather than be separated. In Agenda 21, the plan of action adopted by the conference, the delegates also acknowledged that conservation was as much a "bottom-up" as a "top-down" process and that successful conservation meant working with, rather than dictating to, communities.

The Australian Heritage Commission now provides a set of materials—based on the Burra Charter and the Australian Natural Heritage Charter—that integrates conservation planning for both natural and cultural values. The materials are aimed at introducing values-led planning to people who have to deal with the issues of balancing and effectively managing a range of values at a place. The Protecting Heritage Places Kit includes materials such as a trainers kit, a workbook, and a CD. The commission also has a Protecting Heritage Places Web site (www.deh.gov.au/heritage/) that presents a 10-step process for developing a plan to protect the important natural and cultural heritage elements of a site. As the Web site states, "This information is an important step in bringing the approaches to natural and cultural heritage conservation closer together."

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Nature conservation could probably benefit from the experience of site managers who have been taught by the conservation process not to make assumptions about value. In Australia, Canada, and the United States, heritage professionals have had to learn to work closely with indigenous and minority communities. As Sharon Sullivan, the former director of the Australian Heritage Commission, has noted, "in most cases, the white Australian practitioner can have no way of really assessing the value of a site, except in European terms, unless there is a process of real consultation, and a genuine attempt to accept as equally valuable the views of another culture."

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In England, similar pressure for consultation has come from immigrants and their descendants who—from Roman times onward—have contributed to the development of English culture. Leading academic Professor Stuart Hall reminds heritage practitioners of their responsibility to recognize the diversity of England's heritage; he says that "national heritage is a powerful source of meaning: those who can't see themselves reflected in that mirror are therefore excluded."

All of this means new ways of working for heritage practitioners. We have had to become facilitators rather than dictators. Site management planning has become a process of articulating rather than imposing value, of learning to stand back and listen to people.

The difference between the old and the new approaches can be seen by looking at the content list of any management plan. Does it assume that we know what matters and why—or is there a whole section that explores the values of the site? Is the document the work of one "expert," or has there been an active consultation process? Is there a thread running through the document that connects everything back to significance?

A good example of a plan that evolved from the concerns of Aboriginal groups is the Kulpitjata Management Plan, compiled by the Anangu Rangers for an area containing important places to them, south of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, in the Northern Territory, Australia. The plan was structured around seven emu footprints and sets out the traditional owners' own ideas about how to look after the area. In this case, the role of the conservation adviser was simply to ask questions and facilitate discussion, rather than to dictate answers.

This approach—often called "conservation" or "value-led" planning to distinguish it from more traditional approaches to management planning—has spread around the world. In New Zealand, the heritage charter introduces ideas about the role of family and tribal groups in identity and defines an even stronger role for indigenous groups in decision making that goes beyond legal ownership, public interest, and academic research. The China Principles project—a collaboration of China's State Administration for Cultural Heritage and the GCI, with the Australian Heritage Commission—is developing broad principles for use in China, based on the ideas in the Burra Charter. In the United States, the Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Process (REAP) provides a way of mapping local values which can be fed into management plans.

Conservation planning has been adopted in England, Scotland, and Ireland, where the vast majority of protected buildings and sites lie in the hands of traditional owners and where conservation, in the past, was seen as a conflictual process. Mary Hanna, architectural adviser at An Chomhairle Oidhreachta, the Heritage Council of Ireland, says, "Conservation planning has helped us to work much more closely with owners of historic buildings and local communities."

Conflicting Values

What happens when values conflict? This is not as rare as it may seem. Indeed, most of the damage that happens to sites is not usually a result of deliberate mismanagement but, rather, arises from the need to reconcile different priorities.

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Robben Island in South Africa was recently designated a World Heritage Site for its association with Nelson Mandela and his colleagues involved in the struggle against apartheid. As well as having a rich cultural history, the island is also a significant ecological and marine environment. Inevitably there are conflicts. For example, the local penguins often choose grave sites on the island as suitable nesting areas. Zulaiga Roussow, a social ecologist who coordinates the heritage training program on the island, says, "Ecologists and archaeologists need to learn to work together much better if we are going to manage sites successfully. The landscape of Robben Island has both natural and cultural values, and we can't ignore one at the expense of another."

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So many management issues involve this type of juggling act— whether it's providing access to grand old houses for people in wheelchairs or finding ways of generating the funding needed for vital repairs by developing a site. There is no simple way of reconciling conflicting values in site management, but there are things that can help.

One way is to talk the same language. There are a large number of different professions and interests involved in managing heritage sites, and too often they use different terms. In dealing with a big iconic site—for example, Stonehenge, Chaco Canyon in the U.S. Southwest, or Grosse Île in Canada—it might not be unusual for an engineer, a planner, an archaeologist, an ethnographer, a landscape designer, a curator, an ecologist, and the local community to be involved in the process. The recent Australian Natural Heritage Charter represents a breakthrough in communication, because it uses some of the same concepts for ecology that cultural heritage specialists use, including the idea of conservation planning. Given that most places have more than one type of heritage, a common language and a common working framework are good first steps in reconciling conflicting values.

Impact assessment is another way of dealing with conflicting values. Almost everything we want to do on a cultural site—from erecting a new visitor center to managing vegetation—will have an impact on site values. Impact assessment enables you to explore what those impacts might be before making a decision. Obviously, if a new visitor center, for example, is going to be hugely damaging, then it may not be appropriate. But more often, by understanding the values associated with the site, ways of mitigating or reducing impact can be found.

How do we know whether we are preserving values effectively or not? One way of evaluating the success of what we do is through the idea of "commemorative integrity," developed by Parks Canada. Commemorative integrity is based on the idea of the health and wholeness of a site and rests on three basic questions:

  • Are the resources that represent its importance impaired or under threat?
  • Have the reasons for the site's designation been effectively communicated?
  • Has the site's heritage value been taken into account in decision making?

Commemorative integrity assessments are a very good way of monitoring value-led planning in the long term, and of ensuring that we are sustaining sites effectively.

Preserving for the Future

All of this may seem a long way from the practical business of repairing a roof or cutting the grass. But conservation is about handing on what we value to future generations, and that requires us to look not just at what we have but at what is happening to it. Site management planning lies at the heart of the conservation cycle, helping us to find out what matters and forcing us to look closely at what is happening to it. It is a process, not a recipe, which involves looking backward and looking forward. There is no point in fixing the roof if that dodgy-looking tree is going to fall on it tomorrow.

There is no single approach to site management planning, but what is common to many countries is a move toward a value-led approach that recognizes that caring for the important places requires experts to rethink their role. It means listening to, working with, involving, and, ultimately, empowering communities. It means managing, not stopping, change. For all its superficial familiarity to many older heritage professionals, a value-led approach to site management planning does require us to rethink some of our practices.

Of course, as Jeanne Marie Teutonico, associate director of the GCI, reminds us, there is a danger that the whole exercise can become an end in itself and not the means to an end. She says that the challenge is to "try to make sure that pre-project preparation stages are appropriate to the scale of the project's complexities and values."

In 1996, Australian historian Peter Read published a book called Returning to Nothing: The Meaning of Lost Places. In it he investigates what it means to different communities to lose a place, perhaps as a result of a natural disaster, a planning decision, or a change in economic fortunes. He reminds us not to "underestimate the effect which the loss of dead and dying places has on our own self-identity, mental well-being, and sense of belonging." However we do it, good site management is, at the end of the day, about caring for places that matter to people in the best way that we can.

Kate Clark is head of Historic Environment Management at English Heritage. She is the author of the recent book Informed Conservation: Understanding Historic Buildings and Their Landscapes for Conservation.