At a recent conference, the keynote speaker said, mistakenly, that the Jurassic Coast was England’s first World Heritage Site. An easy mistake to make in a brief and otherwise excellent speech, as the Jurassic Coast is England’s first (and only) natural WHS. It was in fact about the 23rd in the UK to be designated.
In a similar manner, an online news article recently stated that the Purbeck stretch of coast, known as the Jurassic Coast was “one of just eight in the world to be awarded World Heritage Site (WHS) status by UNESCO”. This is somewhat more of a mistake, there are in fact currently 962 WHSs, of which 188 are natural.
These two examples emphasised to me something that my fellow World Heritage Site managers around the country and I struggle with daily, that the knowledge and understanding of World Heritage, and World Heritage Sites in the UK is low. Despite the fact that they are the ‘jewels in the crown of British history (and pre-history)’, the country at large is far more aware of the line-up on Strictly Come Dancing than our 28 different Sites.
Even in Dorset and East Devon, where, thankfully, people very aware of their wonderful Jurassic (and Triassic / Cretaceous) coastline, there is still sometimes confusion. For example, the World Heritage coast and the Heritage Coast designations are not the same thing. One is a global recognition of unique and outstanding natural or cultural features, the other is a simple planning designation, yet people frequently confuse the two.
But in Dorset and East Devon, we are lucky enough to have a receptive and positive media, a fantastic range of local partners, and people with great ideas and huge amounts of enthusiasm (more of which are always still welcome – just drop me a line). This results in events like the Lyme Fossil Festival, look out on 3rd to 5th May 2013, and exhibitions like the Pliosaur in the Dorset County Museum, all of which reinforce the World Heritage messages. But even our knowledge of other UK WH Sites is not so good – many people get stuck after Stonehenge, Tower of London, Bath, Ironbridge and the Giants Causeway.
So why is this, and what can be done? The 28 Sites represent an astonishing range of stories about our history, pre-history and our current culture; together they tell us much about why the UK, and much of the world, is like it is today. Whatever you think of spiky-haired Irish pop-duo Jedward, when Endemol did five programmes using them to tell 7-12 year olds about UK World Heritage Sites, their adaptation of the stories were so popular that Endemol are talking to the BBC about doing five more.
So presentation and language is important, but is it just about having ‘celebs’ cutting a car in half to represent the jaw power of a prehistoric sea monster? Perhaps it is about how society and Government values its heritage assets? In fact, the heritage assets that are labelled World Heritage Sites are well known, generally well looked-after and appreciated, but rarely as World Heritage Sites. So if we are to instil pride in, and understanding of our collective national globally important heritage then we need to make that badge work. Personally, I think that if we could do that, it would do a lot of good for the communities that host the Sites, the heritage itself, and perhaps even a teensy weeny bit of good for national pride, which 2012 showed us that we are actually rather good at. Answers on a postcard (well, email will do) please…
Sam Rose, 22/1/13
PS. In case you were wondering, the views expressed in this and similar opinion-pieces by me in the Jurassic Post are mine alone and do not necessary represent the views of the wider Jurassic Coast Partnership.