After taking control of our heritage, the Welsh government is offering little leadership
David R. Howell, Lecturer in Heritage at Cardiff University
Wales has a torturous relationship with one of its most important assets, heritage.
It is a cultural inheritance which we are rightly proud of, yet it has also become a product, one which we continue to ask more and more of.
Indeed, in many respects Welsh heritage has become the dancing bear of cultural conflicts.
Many working within the heritage sector in Wales are deeply uncomfortable with the way in which our heritage resources are flaunted, prodded and made to perform, yet those in the sector must still eat, so the bear must dance.
The show has become even more unsavoury in recent years. The headline grabbers have all been about iron rings and digital dragons; controversial, contemporary, with only the most tenuous of connections to the historical narratives from which they are drawn.
For that which is front and centre in the heritage products of Wales, the actual heritage is increasingly a bit-part player; a stage upon which the latest government priorities can be projected.
And so much of this has to do with the government of the day. Pre-devolution, the Welsh heritage sector, such as it was, was largely free to do as it pleased, with few to answer to bar distant suits in the Whitehall Wales Office.
As devolution dawned, little initially changed, as heritage provision was subsumed into the ministerial portfolio for Post-16 Education and Training (held by Tom Middlehurst).
It’s probably not unfair to say that during the first year of devolution, Alun Michael’s cabinet largely forget about heritage.
However, changes were afoot, and year by year, devolved Welsh governance, dominated by Welsh Labour, set about the task of taking in-house key elements of the heritage environment.
Following the establishment of a ministerial role for culture in the Labour-Lib Dem coalition of 2000 (which incidentally saw through quite positive changes such as free entry to National Museums), the independent elements of the sector began to fall.
Most notably, the Wales Tourist Board was abolished in 2005, and reimagined as Visit Wales – entirely under the auspices of government. Cadw, the historic environment services for the Welsh Government, also operated ‘in-house’.
No more were such entities able to operate at arms-length, now they were answerable to, and operated directly by the State.
Efforts to control Welsh heritage didn’t stop there. The most notable attempted coup came in relation to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW), where the largely independent organisation was selected to be subsumed into Cadw.
Sector wide hostility put paid to those efforts, but not before daggers were sharpened and liberally launched at unsuspecting bureaucrats. Notable comments published in 2012 came from the RCAHMW chairman, Eurwyn Wiliam who, among several significant statements, claimed Cadw has attempted to ‘subvert…democratic processes’ and were an organisation ‘wanting in integrity’.
Others commented that Cadw was simply ‘inept’ at their task, with most agreeing that it were to be disastrous for the standalone RCAHMW to be taken over by the government mismanaged Cadw. Things were tense then, and six years on the situation appears to be little better.
There is a dark hostility and resentment running through the heritage sector in Wales today, and much of the finger pointing falls in the direction of the Welsh government.
Few will openly give voice to it, employment in heritage and museums being a uniquely fragile thing, but Eurwyn Wiliam is far from the only voice to be, shall we say, ‘concerned’ (angered to the brink of breaking) about the influence of government on heritage in Wales.
The sentiments of negativity are hardly helped by the publishing of reports and articles which indicate that Wales is failing to make the most of the rich resources at their disposal, with both England and Scotland surging ahead in terms of developing tourism markets.
One of the main things that the Welsh Government took direct control over, and they can’t seem to get it right.
The picture is complex, and there are some things that the heritage sector itself can do very little about.
Wales could have all the attractions in the world, but without an infrastructure that allows people to visit them, the people will not visit.
Whatever the long-term impacts of Brexit might be, in the short term its quite clear that it has done little to dampen enthusiasm for visiting the island in general – but few take the extra half hour or so to reach and cross the Welsh border.
If an English or a Scottish castle is easier to get to, can we blame visitors for taking the more practical option?
Yet, because of the very nature of government priorities for the Welsh heritage sector, getting infrastructure and access to our castles is critical, because that’s about all they market to potential tourists.
Okay, that might be a touch harsh, but it is undeniable that government leadership on heritage and culture has been significantly streamlined.
There are a few reasons for this, and we can’t ignore the simple detail that there is an obvious draw when it comes to castles. They remain enigmatic, exciting environments in which to play and explore.
At the same time, it takes relatively little effort to keep pumping the castle gas, than it does to build up something entirely new and distinctive.
Personal priorities play their part here as well. The shift in focus towards overtly Royal narratives, since the arrival of Dafydd Elis Thomas in the role of Culture, Tourism and Sport, is striking.
But beyond what an individual may prefer to focus on, it is the very portfolio that Elis Thomas currently holds, that should be calling out for the loudest of alarm bells.
‘Culture, Tourism and Sport’…that is a lot of different elements, and the arrangement is nothing new.
Heritage first sat in the portfolio for ‘Culture, Sport and the Welsh Language’ in 2000. Seemingly little has changed.
Only in 2007, as part of the Labour-Plaid coalition, has there been a distinct ‘Minister for Heritage’ role, and it was gone again by 2011.
Since devolution began, heritage, for all that is asked of it in terms of economic rejuvenation, identity building and community wellbeing (among other seemingly implausibly unrealistic objectives), has been a bit part player in the political priorities of the day.
Sandwiched between a myriad of other concerns, it is no surprise that leadership in the sector is lacking true innovation and scope – there is simply too much on the agenda.
Heritage is the cigarette butt of political ambition in Wales; a charged, soggy tip to tidy up once all the ‘good stuff’ has been burnt up.
Year of the Sea
That is not to say that efforts have not been made, for they certainly have been – but those efforts often come across as half-hearted, and disjoined.
A succession of ‘year of’ events has brought some interesting interpretive ideas, but often the end product is abstract and temporary, forgotten, with little sense of legacy.
A quick glance at the landing page for the current ‘Year of the Sea’, on the Visit Wales home page, is symptomatic of the problem.
Someone decided that the best way to grab visitor’s attention, was to run a video of Richard Parks (great guy, inspirational fund raiser, but not exactly the most recognisable of Welsh personalities beyond the border) cycling in non-specific locations, occasionally stopping to rub his face with water.
The video does nothing to ‘sell’ the remarkable range of cultural and heritage outputs developed to support the year, so unless you happen to be both a visitor from the United States, who happens to have a predilection for watching Richard Parks splash his face with fresh spring water (not implausible, though probably somewhat of a niche fetish), why would you choose that over any other, easier to reach destination, elsewhere in the UK?
The problems run deep, and this is of course all compounded by the ongoing legacy of austerity. Reflecting back on a former employer in south east Wales, I know of one city situated museum, where a single curatorial staff member is responsible for the roles of at least three other, now terminated or retired (but not replaced), members of staff.
The way in which the heritage portfolio is treated by the government of Wales, is echoed in the impractical and near impossible day to day management of the resources it is responsible for.
Be it for the lack of funding, the lack of leadership, the lack of infrastructure, the lack of vision, or the ongoing obsession displayed by Welsh Labour for controlling every element of heritage and museums output in Wales, there are real, critical issues which are serving to undercut that which could be the most positive and distinctive thing about Wales.
Is there a solution? I fear that in many respects, we are too far gone. So many of our cultural and heritage institutions have been whittled down to the absolute bare bones.
Welsh political leadership demands more of those institutions, where there are too few left to do anything about it.
In a financial crisis, it always seems so easy to pull the plug on a museum first, but that which can be terminated in a moment, takes decades to rebuild.
In an age of instant results, what remains of the Welsh heritage infrastructure simply won’t be able to keep up with the increased burden of expectation – and that afore mentioned resentment will just keep bubbling away beneath the surface.
Safeguarding spending for that which is supposed to be so critical to our tourism targeted economy would be a good place to start, though should not be expected as belts are tightened going into the uncertainties of Brexit day, 2019.
The best we might be able to hope for, is that a future Welsh Government might have the vision and confidence to let go of the reigns.
Release the shackles on Cadw and Visit Wales – let them run free, let them play, let their staff, who have expertise in tourism, in interpretation and in heritage management, call the shots without being controlled at every corner.
Whatever the change might be, a change needs to happen, because conversations with those in the Welsh heritage sector today will stimulate an assortment of sombre, dispirited and near seditious sentiments.
A breaking point is around the corner, and the cultural inheritance we all love to think of as the envy of the world, might soon be up for sale.
Metaphorically speaking… I hope.
These observations are loosely based on a more detailed academic assessment of the same issue, published in 2016: “Selection and Deselection of the National Narrative: Approaches to Heritage through Devolved Politics in Wales.” In Hooper, G. Heritage and Tourism in Britain and Ireland (London: Palgrave).