Let’s Rethink to Avoid Normalizing Heritage as Always in Crisis
The trigger to this blog is the recent announcement by the Vancouver Island Local History Society (VILHS) that they will cease being operators of Point Ellice House, a provincially owned heritage property in Victoria, BC. The achievements of VILHS since 2019, when they were awarded the contract to manage and steward this site, are remarkable. Their research, programming and curatorship are widely respected and the connections they have forged with the community reflect the modern concept of heritage action, whereby contemporary conversations are integral to site engagement. For the VILHS these conversations include both reconciliation and food security. Heritage BC has supported VILHS’s work through grants, and we admire their accomplishments.
Our collective advocacy often feels inadequate when we see our community having to make difficult and capacity limiting decisions about their operations and engagement. We all deserve to see signals that there is active willingness on the part of governments to rethink their existing heritage funding opportunities, policies, and strategies.
In Heritage BC’s recent letter to Minister Popham, we explicitly drew attention to the state of heritage in BC. We highlighted that those who work and volunteer in the heritage sector, with their hearts and souls committed to their good work, have been feeling undervalued and vulnerable for a long time. We noted that our sector’s ‘engines have no fuel’ to stay resilient and that we are all struggling to have our capacity match expectations. The heritage sector is seeing red flags of chronic financial instability including shorter operating hours, valued personnel leaving the sector, the loss of indigenous and settler historic places, and worrisome deferred maintenance.
Heritage BC also actively participates in a collective of BC arts service organizations whose advocacy effort is drawing attention to the inequity of funding available to BC’s heritage, museums, arts and cultural organizations. We are shining a light on the need to expand and re-evaluate funding distribution mechanisms so that smaller organizations have access to recovery and resiliency funding, as many have fallen through cracks and are truly in jeopardy. We support the call to double the BC Arts Council’s budget, even though heritage organizations rarely are eligible for this funding. We do this because heritage intersections frequently with museums, art and culture. Recently the BC Museums Association published a very concise response and takeaways from the 2023 BC budget. There is a lot to think about in their summary and I encourage you to take a look.
A Strong Heritage Sector Supports Positive Change
Heritage is a part of all aspects of our organized world, and the heritage sector understands that our values and interests are powerful tools to help our communities achieve the changes we aspire towards. We accept our responsibility to be active players in changing systems to bring about reconciliation and redress. We are having contemporary conversations in our communities about securing affordable housing, building safer communities, finding tangible and accessible ways to fight racism, promoting equity, and combating climate change. The following ideas reveal how:
- “The greenest building is the one that already exists”. Removing barriers to achieving building sustainability is climate action. The heritage sector is ideally placed to take a lead in this societal shift.
- “It could cost up to 48% less to convert existing buildings (including those designated heritage) into housing than creating new construction projects”. Building codes and policy can be shifted to support this fact whereas currently they favour demolition. Some resources about these first two bullets are here.
- “Heritage Buildings are often essential ‘third spaces’ in communities”. They house small businesses and services such as theatres, daycares, community centres, and are hubs for citizenry to explore history, heritage, and culture. These spaces are inordinately at risk in a seismic event. See our Seismic Reportfor more detail.
- The ‘ pioneer’ history was a ‘colourful’ one; it was diverse and multicultural before multiculturalism became policy in 1971”. Today the heritage and museum sector understands how we contributed to cultural erasure, and are unequivocal in our efforts towards reconciliation, redress, equity, and diversity. Colonial sites such as Point Ellice House are the exact places where informed and nuanced conversations and storytelling need to happen. In historic colonial locations there is opportunity to tell what came before colonialism and give context about why cultural erasure and ignoring diverse cultures have been so harmful.
New Provincial funding opportunities are rare for heritage conservation, programming and awareness. Two substantial grant opportunities have recently provided investment. The 2021 Community Economic Revitalization Infrastructure Program Unique Heritage Infrastructure funding stream ($20 million), and the 150 Time Immemorial Grant Program ($30 million). Heritage BC directly disbursed $16 million for these two grants, and we don’t lose sight that the heritage focused requests were over subscribed by $70 million.
Funding for provincial heritage properties, such as Point Ellice House is not the same as funding for the majority of heritage sties across BC for which there is little opportunity for provincial funding. While our own Heritage Legacy Fund has benefited from recent Provincial investment of $5 million, which is encouraging, it still can only distribute an embarrassingly low amount annually. The Heritage Legacy Fund is intended to bring opportunity to a vast array of organizations doing heritage conservation, engagement and awareness throughout BC and it is always oversubscribed. Every heritage property regardless of ownership is concerned about how they will manage their maintenance and conservation responsibilities.
Heritage BC is in regular contact with the BC Heritage Branch, and we value our trusted partnership with them. We do bring up difficult topics of concern to the heritage sector, and despite the solutions often being part of a long game, I do feel that persistence will pay off. Our own next steps for 2023/2024 will have Heritage BC encouraging the Heritage Branch to join us in reactivating the planning documents from 2019 which are still relevant but were derailed by the pandemic. The Provincial Roundtables on the State of Heritage final report and Province of BC’s response, What We Heard are found on our website.
Many heritage organizations have tirelessly found ways to rejig their business models and to adjust their expectations. This is often exhausting and uninspiring work. Rethinking and finding ways to bring stability is needed for creative and engaged organizations to bring vitality to the heritage sector. Although imperfect, the best way to effect change is still to write letters to our local and provincial governments and to participate in the conversation about why heritage is important to you. Our own website, the BC Museums Association and BC Alliance for Arts + Culture Arts VOTE have resources to use to be a better advocate.
Kirstin Clausen, Executive Director