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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Northern Ireland’s Historic, Cultural and Heritage Environment

Northern Ireland’s Historic, Cultural and Heritage Environment

Giant's Causeway: Major Tourist Attraction - Chmee2

Ulster’s history, heritage, culture, natural environment contribute to its economy and national pride as part of both the UK and the island of Ireland.

While sharing the same geographical island, Ulster’s and Eire’s history, culture and heritage have developed individual and separate yet frequently connected environments and characteristics. In the past, the island has shared common heritage in every way.

The exploitation/development versus the preservation/access debate is as vital and urgent here as elsewhere. If the management balance is right, precious assets earn much needed revenue. If it’s not, assets are wasted if not damaged.

The Landscape

The University of Ulster maintains a website devoted to cultural heritage and museum sites. These include under ‘Cultural Heritage’: Archives of Heritage (forum for academic and industry researchers); Association for Heritage Interpretation (heritage interpretation of sites and artifacts); Council of Europe, Directorate of Culture, Cultural and Natural Heritage (promotion and preservation of EU sites, policy and action); UNESCO (culture and collaboration globally); the Cultural Heritage Preservation and Conservation Database (in English and Italian); and Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe (a compendium of basic facts and trends).

There is also the Cultural Policy and Management Information Service; EMonument and World Monuments Fund; English Heritage; European Heritage Network; International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM); National Preservation Office, established 1984 by the British Library; UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport; and the Heritage Council based in Eire.

Under ‘Cultural Landscape’ there is the Institute for Cultural Landscape Studies, Protecting Cultural Landscapes, Cultural Landscape Foundation and in the University of Exeter, the Historical and Cultural Geography Group. While these are not specific to the particular landscapes of Northern Ireland, their international importance is acknowledged.

Northern Ireland Environment Link published Northern Ireland’s Historic Environment (2008). They are a body associated with NI Archaeology Forum (set up by Tony Robinson and TV programme, Time Team), aiming to push the past up the political agenda to ‘ensure we learn from the past about how to live today in harmony with our environment and respecting our heritage’.

Historical Legacies

In June 2011, a new £30m Public Record Office of Northern Ireland was opened in Belfast. Described by First Minister Peter Robinson as ‘iconic’ and a ‘fitting addition to the cultural landscape of Belfast’, its archives one of ‘our greatest cultural and historical assets’.

All parties were excited that people can get in touch with their own family pasts and the communities they lived in, plus the sense of national and personal identity such archives gave. Many of the saved documents were irreplaceable and priceless. That public investment in the past can be made in a time of austerity, shows its importance to the future.

There are castles, monuments and monastic sites, graveyards, round towers and Celtic crosses. For instance, much of Derry City dates from Norman times, and as Discover Northern Ireland said, ‘centuries of war, siege and expansion have left a well-preserved legacy to be explored’. Beaches, coastlines, gardens, estates and museums are the tourist package; history/heritage, 20th century’s wars and troubles, a big attraction.

Tourism’s Contribution

In August 2010, Northern Ireland Tourist Board published a report by Deloitte and Oxford Economics stating the visitor economy produced £0.5 billion (almost 5% of GDP) and supported 40,000 jobs, with potential to double by 2020, exceeding transport, retailing and manufacturing.

It identified future investment and policy considerations as crucial to expand revenue streams. It focussed on employment benefits, new facilities for towns and cities, opportunities in rural areas and that the industry was a source of pride. It’s the desire to show visitors a country at its best which produces successful tourism.

History, heritage and culture are integral to that urge. They noted that while the economic situation throughout the UK affected the industry, as did taxation and inflation, there was some insulation for tourism even in a recession. The income from many industries may be exported; tourism-spend stays in Northern Ireland.

VisitBritain Chief Executive Sandie Dawe, added that the 2012 London Olympics and nomination of Derry-Londonderry as UK City of Culture 2013 were enormous promotional opportunities for Northern Ireland.

The Cultural Dimension

As traditional business models diminish, new, innovative thinking is needed. The arts provide fresh, dynamic approaches to business people, students and officialdom, offering advantage in uncertain, turbulent times.

But there’s a catalogue of older Irish customs and traditions, language, music, art, literature, folklore, cuisine and sport to provide earning opportunities across the entire island. There is rich diversity in divides between rural and urban populations, between faiths and between nationalists and loyalists.

The Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure of the Northern Ireland Assembly, produced a report into the Impact and Value of Museums in Northern Ireland (March 2011). They concluded that economics and values must consider more than museum ‘income, expenditure and employment’ and take into account wider social impacts.

Sport and arts sectors have no clear customer-base, while museums do. They wanted more research into measuring methodologies, but it was clear that the cost-benefit analysis of happiness, well-being and social worth are not easy. Yet there are tangible benefits in museums as centres of pride, records and education.

Traditional music, dancing, poetry and visual arts also add value, financial and social. This is no different from Eire and to some extent, Scotland and Wales in looking at the economic benefits of arts, culture and history. That Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom yet linked increasingly across a thin border with the Republic of Eire, ought to be a great strength in marketing yesterday, today and tomorrow.

First published on Suite 101, 20 September 2011

Image: Giant’s Causeway: Major Tourist Attraction – Chmee2

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