Museums and heritage: Building livable communities through soft power

Toronto’s Distillery District (Photo: Josh Evnin)

Economics of heritage, Buildings and architecture, Community, Adaptive reuse

Published Date: Oct 01, 2019

Photo: Toronto’s Distillery District (Photo: Josh Evnin)

Museums and heritage are engines of urban redesign and revitalization. Lord Cultural Resources has worked in 450 cities worldwide on some 2,600 museums, cultural plans, gardens and libraries. I have seen this momentum increase over the last 30 years.

As Ontarians, we can be very proud that most of our cities and towns have become more “live-able” in that people genuinely want to live there. These increasingly beautiful places, however, must be sustained as liveable communities. For this purpose, museums and heritage spaces need to engage with the organizations and institutions that build communities through health and well-being initiatives, affordable housing, education, senior living, welcoming immigrants and job creation. These partnerships are discussed in my recent book, Cities Museums and Soft Power.

“Soft power” is a concept that was developed by Professor Joseph Nye in the early 1990s to explain how influence can flow from persuasion, attraction and agenda-setting rather than the hard power of military and economic means. In the past four years, soft power has been increasingly discussed as part of global cultural diplomacy. Our book, however, focused on the application of soft power to communities and especially to how museums, heritage and culture can help build society-minded networks that accelerate cultural change and empower citizens to create more livable communities. We identified 32 ways for museums and cultural organizations to activate their soft power. I will present five of them in this article.

Woodland Cultural Centre, Brantford (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Illustratedjc)

Woodland Cultural Centre, Brantford (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Illustratedjc)

Learning for a lifetime

Working in partnership with libraries, theatres and galleries, museums can structure themselves as available resources for schools and lifelong learning in order to provide open access to learning and skills training. This is especially important because people change jobs and move more often than previous generations. Continual upskilling is important for everyone. And the liveable community on one where people develop empathy – where better for old and young to communicate than in a museum or heritage site where they can explore objects old and new together.

Bridging and bonding

Sociologist Robert Putnam identifies these two behaviours that build social capital (by which is meant the ability of people to solve problems together: bridging, which occurs where people of different backgrounds share ideas, and bonding, when people from similar backgrounds or with similar ideas come together to support one another). We have seen how in the past 20 years, digital communication has tended to reinforce bonding of homogeneous groups even when society has become more heterogeneous. Museums and heritage spaces too often bond people who have similar education or cultural values – but working with health and social service agencies, they can help create social capital through engaging with people of different backgrounds and making space for new ideas.

Planning culturally

Planning culturally is a method of bottom-up cultural planning that Lord Cultural Resources has facilitated in many cities. Museums and heritage institutions are often at the top of the planning process, but the bigger opportunity is to offer help in taking a neighbourhood-based approach. Once projects are identified (such as a new library or preserving a historical structure or an open days or Doors Open program), encourage every department in the city to get involved. In this way, the entire city and its employees are engaged with history, heritage and the arts not only as isolated events or capital projects, but in every aspect of city life – from waste management to housing and human services.

Power diffusion

From a governance perspective, museums and preservation organizations can be understood as a continuum – on one end, government-owned and – controlled, and on the other, privately owned. In the centre is a range of civil society types that contain both public and private elements. Civil society institutions have the greatest capacity for soft power because they share power. Power diffusion is to soft power what power concentration is to hard power. Successful civil society cultural institutions have diverse networked boards, advisory councils, outward-looking policies, opportunities for hiring and advancement reflecting the diversity of the community, and meaningful volunteer and internship programs.

Cultural commons

Cities are recognizing the value in their histories as a way to boost their reputation, to attract creative industries, investment, new residents and tourists through heritage and arts districts, to adaptively reuse heritage buildings, and to enhance cultural tourism. These special districts provide a sense of place – linking past, present and future in a complex changing community. A heritage building will have a meaning for newcomers that is quite different from the meanings ascribed by historically minded preservationists, which is different again from the meanings of Indigenous people. Preservation efforts that empower people to celebrate the diversity of stories and that care for relevant art and artifacts are more likely to be sustainable than top-down initiatives. By working with grassroots organizations to designate heritage areas, establish the content and find the funding, heritage projects can be enduring “cultural commons.”

These are only five of the many strategies by which heritage organizations and museums build livable communities. But we cannot do it alone. Investment in museums, heritage preservation, schools, hospitals, sports facilities, parks, transportation and infrastructure are critical for the sustainability of livable communities. Now is the time for the museum and heritage sectors to help make it happen by exercising their soft power. [Photos courtesy of Gail Lord]