Six ways heritage research contributes to sustainable development

By Francesca Giliberto -

Heritage research explores the cultural and natural assets of our planet and our relationship with them. It helps us find and answers to questions and opens new fields for future action. What makes something part of our heritage? How does it shape our identities? How can it be adequately conserved, protected, and enhanced? What role do stakeholders play in this context? How can heritage be a resource and a barrier to development? And where does heritage fit in addressing the Sustainable Development Goals?

This final question remains largely overlooked in the work of many heritage and development organisations, and in the most recent international development agenda adopted by the United Nations in 2015 (2030 Agenda).

In my work on PRAXIS—a University of Leeds research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council—I have explored how arts and humanities research is addressing urgent global development challenges. The research involved a mixed method analysis of 87 arts and humanities research projects. They were all funded through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and the Newton Fund in 49 countries eligible for Official Development Assistance between 2014 and 2021. The findings are published in the research report Heritage for Global Challenges.

Why heritage research matters for sustainable development

The PRAXIS report highlights how heritage is being used by researchers to foster sustainable developmental approaches. We found heritage is helping to make research more innovative. It encourages researchers from different disciplines to work together. It’s rooted in places and societies. It’s more inclusive. It’s long term.

Our report presents over 30 case studies with key research findings, methodologies, and impact across different themes and the Sustainable Development Goals. In this article, I present six key findings and practical examples to show how heritage research is contributing to sustainable development.

Table: Thematic clusters and the SDGs

Praxis heritage report SDG diagram

Sustainable Development Goals and associated targets tackled by the 87 GCRF and Newton research projects analysed in the PRAXIS report Heritage for Global Challenges, A Research Report by PRAXIS: Arts and Humanities for Global Development. Leeds: University of Leeds, pp. 35-56. Source: Giliberto, F. (2021).

1. Heritage research is relevant to all 17 Sustainable Development Goals

For a long time, people thought heritage research had not much in common with development. Heritage was reduced to things that had to be protected and/or transformed into museum artefacts. This misses so much of what heritage is about and what heritage research can fulfil.

Heritage is multifaceted and dynamic. It is our monuments and historic buildings, landscapes and biodiversity, traditional knowledge and practices, cultural industries, performing arts, social practices, and rituals. Heritage research allows us to connect past, present, and future as well as different research domains, industries, and people. It can help address the complexity and variety of global development challenges: environmental degradation, climate change, refugee and humanitarian crises, extreme poverty, food insecurity, persisting inequalities, unsustainable urbanisation. It can also help develop new visions for the future by illuminating existing inequalities, injustices, and exploitation.

2. Heritage research makes us more sensitive to culture and places

Heritage research can foster a deep understanding of local cultures, realities, and places. It can support the provision of culturally sensitive approaches and solutions. It can foster equitable and ethical exchanges and help us build trusting relationships. Through a process of co-production (collaboration between researchers and local stakeholders), it can stimulate long-term engagement with communities and individuals. As an example, Enduring Connections—a community-level research programme to tackle rapid environmental changes in Kiribati—worked with local community members to produce a documentary film to raise awareness about the effects of climate change on the island through a creative, experimental, and participatory approach (see Case Study 5).

This type of engagement allows us to overcome cultural, linguistic, and communication differences and barriers, and the distrust of local stakeholders. It can support the transformation of researchers’ own Eurocentric preconceptions, challenge local and external views and attitudes, and stimulate meaningful participation on all sides.

3. Digital, creative, and artistic inclusion and participation

The use of digital heritage and creative methods in all their forms (e.g. exhibitions, story-telling, festivals, performances, films, etc.) can promote alternative and emotionally-connected ways to communicate. Sometimes these activities help us start difficult conversations, including with those people who are frequently excluded and marginalised. For example, the BReaThe project used virtual reality and 3D models to recreate heritage sites and memories as a way of reconnecting refugees to their past and holding difficult conversations about their present situation (see Case Study 3).

Heritage research can also support people to get involved in both research implementation and heritage preservation and management. This is the case of Sustainable Solutions toward Heritage Preservation, where the team promoted a participatory approach to the conservation of the historic city of Shutb in Egypt (see Case Study 10). Among various engagement activities, a card game was designed and used as a tool during workshops to create dialogue, entertain, and educate by reconnecting local communities with their heritage.

4. Capacity strengthening and empowerment

Heritage research empowers people. It helps build skills through heritage-based education, community learning, training, and other capacity building activities. Looking at heritage across different cultures can produce new educational materials, experiential, and hands-on learning grounded in local cultures, places, communities, and artefacts. For instance, Widening Participation delivered specific training, educational tours, and teaching packs to assist Georgian schoolteachers in providing teaching sensitive to regional identities. Hands-on activities in museums and cultural heritage sites, alongside the use of traveling exhibitions, summer camps, and day trips, offered an alternative and interactive learning model, more inclusive of ethnic and religious minorities  (see Case Study 11).

Other practical outcomes of heritage research include vocational training to help people get better jobs. Capacity building workshops with local professionals and members of the community can also increase heritage awareness and stimulate local custodianship.

5. Fostering interdisciplinary, collaborative, and cross-sectoral approaches

The multi-faceted nature of heritage—tangible and intangible, natural and cultural—promotes interdisciplinary, collaborative, and cross-sectoral research. It makes people work together. It stimulates North-South, South-North, and South-South collaboration beyond academia. Heritage research offers opportunities for universities to work with charities, but also businesses. Artists can rub shoulders with politicians and administrators. Museums can sit down with activists and communities. Rising from the Depths showed how heritage research constitutes an ideal setting for creating partnerships across a range of community, academic, private and public sector stakeholders. By funding 29 projects across East Africa, the project stimulated collaboration among heritage, infrastructure, and the marine industry to promote sustainable conservation and poverty alleviation, among other goals (see Case Study 9).

These mutually-supportive approaches are vital to tackle the social, environmental, cultural, and economic complexity of global developmental challenges.

6. Awareness raising and influencing people

Heritage research can inform and engage people. At its best it can stimulate action among different stakeholders, and influence international, national, and local developmental agendas. This can be done through scientific publications and events, but also non-academic reports, guidelines and recommendations, focus groups and expert panels, as well as more accessible outputs, like booklets, local magazines, press releases, and media interviews.

Learning from the Past provides a compelling example. The production and distribution of a community-orientated book on ‘Nubia past and present, agriculture crops and food’ supports the preservation of traditional Nubian agriculture knowledge (see Case Study 7). The book was co-created with the local community and widely distributed, providing new means for making the research results accessible to Nubian communities in Northern Sudan. It also makes available local agricultural narratives and oral histories that are not otherwise documented.

Now what?

The outbreak of COVID-19 has exacerbated worldwide development challenges. As we recover I think it’s important to rethink current approaches. It’s time to transform development models to be more human-centred, and sustainable. The findings of this research can help inform that thinking in the minds of UK and overseas academics and practitioners, and in the boardrooms of their funding bodies and governments. We must begin to see the power of heritage research with fresh clarity. To see heritage and heritage research as indispensable in our efforts to achieve the SDGs and our common goal to make the world a safer, more equitable, and more liveable home for everyone.

Dr Francesca Giliberto is Post-Doctoral Research Fellow on Heritage for Global Challenges, for Praxis.

Featured image: Stupa Bodhnath Kathmandu, Nepal – October 26, 2017. Source:

SDG goals icons - Partnerships for the goals
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