Heritage and Economy
Heritage is valued differently by different people. It is critical to construct an economic framework within which heritage is understood in its various facets. Only once the economic underpinnings of heritage’s value are understood can attempts be made to resolve the conflicts which arise over valuing heritage. Certainly, solutions to heritage conflicts and future progress towards international cooperation in heritage will not be viable without tackling the economic issues attached.
The discrepancies in attaching value stem from heritage’s material and emotional properties. Heritage often takes the form of objects. As with any modern object, a value can be assigned. On the other hand, when an object represents something symbolic or touches the emotions, its value may be incalculable. The emotional aspects of heritage can cloud the economic motivations and visa versa.
There are objective and subjective criteria for assigning value to heritage objects such as age, material, artist / creator, décor / decorator, origin, their story or situation, what is fashionable currently, etc. For example, the golden death mask of Agamemnon discovered in Mycenae by Heinrich Schliemann can probably be given a monetary value based on the quality and amount of the gold. However, because this represents, truly or falsely, the legend of one of ancient Greece’s great heroic figures many would say its value cannot be estimated. In every day life this difficulty in valuing heritage objects translates into three different scenarios: 1) the buying and selling of objects by dealers, collectors, auction houses and museums, 2) commercialization of heritage into tourism, and 3) nationalist and political rhetoric often tied to value judgements and propaganda. Each scenario presents ethical and moral questions for a heritage value framework.
1) The first brings to light the question of ownership: can heritage be owned and, if so, to whom should it belong?
2) In this case, objects can be regarded as natural resources in a service economy which uses the commercialization of heritage for profit. One must ask: are the stories told about and using the objects accurate? In or out of their national contexts does the value of the objects change? Must physical context be respected, returning to the question of ownership?
3) Among other consequences, this third issue has a long history legitimizing imperialism, colonialism, and nationalism.
This author believes heritage objects belong both to their origin country and the whole world in different ways. Therefore, objects require two explanations and two values: one for how they fit in their national context and one for how they fit in a global context. Because of the great power heritage objects possess to tell political stories and to be used for political purposes, it is essential to be vigilant as regards accuracy of information and political bias. These principles are the basis for a value framework which will allow heritage to enrich the world supported by a viable economic framework.