Heritage therapy in times of recession?

Updated: Sep 25, 2014, 15:35 PM IST

Akrita Reyar It`s all about art; and France is showing the way. The French were not only smarter by extending loans only to people with secure incomes and thus avoiding the subprime crisis, which hit US in a big way and the UK to some extent, they are also dodging recession in more creative ways than these two.

Firstly, France still has its head above water, when most of the West has just sunk in the recession tsunami. Its GDP has shrunk less than that of, say Germany’ s, and its unemployment rate, though high at 8.9, is still lower than that of the US which is way over 11%. Scratching their heads over possible solutions to give the economy a stimulus while also engaging more and more people in jobs, the French came up with the marvelous idea of giving their aging heritage a face lift. As heritage restoration is a labour intensive activity, the money spent achieves the twin goals of keeping traditional tourist attractions in a fine condition, while putting money into a lot of pockets. This money in turn goes back to the market, and thus creates an increased demand for goods and services. According to the New York Times, among the first beneficiaries is Fontainebleau, the 800-year old palace, used by both Napoleon and Marie Antoinette. Besides Fontainebleau, 50 other chateaus and 75 cathedrals will get funding. A total of a 100 million Euros will be spent in what the French are calling cultural patrimony, according to the report. Its Nordic neighbour too is not far behind in getting on the conservation bandwagon, which makes business sense. So why has Norway devoted 8% of the stimulus package to such causes in this time of downturn? Dr Terje M Nypam, who works with the Norwegian Directorate of Cultural Heritage, says its pure logic. Nypam not just reiterates that the upkeep of historical buildings being a labour intensive activity hands out more jobs, he emphasizes that huge investments are not required in machinery as most tools are locally made and this helps small and medium industries. Moreover, the planning and gestation periods are virtually non-existent, while the restoration task also helps spruce up technicians’ skills. Testifying at the European Union hearing in Brussels on the subject of the role of heritage in times of the economic crisis, ILO’s Edmundo Werna said, “According to the ILO, experience has shown that for the same level of investment in local construction, the use of labour-based technologies can create between two and four times more employment.” “In addition, the use of labour-intensive methods promotes small and medium enterprises, causes the drop of foreign exchange requirements by 50% to 60%, decreases overall cost by 10 to 30%, and reduces environmental impacts,” he continued. The best part, according to Werna, is that local labour, local skills, local machinery and local investment obviously mean that the money stays within the country and hence unfailingly gives the economy a push. Such has been the success of these programmes that the link between heritage and economics has become a subject of intense research and several books are being published to enforce the advantages. (For those interested, consult: http://www.ebheritage.fi/literature_links/ ) Besides the positives enlisted above, the Indian model in cultural renewal has worked for many years not just as an economic incentive for jobs, but to achieve other ends like converting such locations into resorts and thus helping in bringing in tourists and giving the hotel industry a boost. Where we lack and Europe succeeds is in turning these ancient buildings into natural museums. We, however, gain in using them as locations for shooting films. The idea of holding operas in such places meanwhile has caught on in a major way in Europe. If all measures are taken to ensure that no damage to old buildings is caused in the process, this turns out to be a win-win situation for the government and the people alike. While US is the country where the entire meltdown actually began, and has probably been among the worst hit, the idea of heritage restoration as an economic stimulant has hit home rather late. A project on these lines seems to have been commissioned in Texas, but mainland Europe is smirking about Uncle Sam having missed the bus, as economies around the world are already beginning to look up. The most fantastic case of ignorance seems to be of the UK. England has chosen to stick to traditional thinking, postponing a crucial Heritage Protection Bill that would have given local authorities more money and a bigger say in matters of preservation of cultural buildings. The government apparently felt that there were more pressing matters related with the financial turmoil that needed its undivided attention, and that culture could wait. Now, that’ s what you call missing the point.


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