A heritage index for Bloomsbury

What does the heritage of Bloomsbury mean to you? Our area has such a rich history that its past feels a constant feature of local life, and becomes a part of our own identity when we make a home here. And once here, we all add to it – creating new layers to the Bloomsbury story through the lives we lead.

In which case, capturing the ‘state’ of heritage in Bloomsbury can only ever be a snapshot in time. But creating that picture is just what a new tool created by researchers at the RSA and the Heritage Lottery Fund* attempts to do. The Heritage Index is an online tool that allows you to explore local heritage through a world of maps and data.

According to the RSA, “heritage is a key resource to connect people to places. Strengthening that connection brings to places a host of other social and economic benefits. So the next logical question is how much of this resource do we have locally?”

To answer that question, the RSA put together 120 datasets about heritage for every local authority in the UK  – so actually for Camden rather than Bloomsbury. The Index combines data on everything from listed buildings, museums, parks and nature reserves, to the number of businesses that have continuously traded in the area for more than 50 years, the number of ancient trees, and the number of war memorials. Interestingly, the Index also counts heritage activity – how heritage is being used by local people. Data on activities includes, for example, how much local residents visit museums, whether there are Kids Clubs to explore local wildlife, and the number of blue plaques commemorating  local historical figures (download the data).

Once the data had been collected,  number crunchers at the RSA mashed them together to produce a score and a ranking for each local authority area.So the MA’s endeavours to get local people remembered, with recent plaques to Charlotte Mew, Alphonse de Normandy and Robert Owen, will have pushed Camden up in the rankings.

And Camden does do well, coming 21st out of 325 local authorities in England – well inside the top 10%. For the category of museums, the home of the British Museum and the British Library, with Museum Mile running between them, a third place finish is perhaps even disappointing. The City of London and Cambridge top us there. Being home to 2,000 listed buildings also means Camden does well in the built environment category. There are 322 blue plaques and 68 ancient trees, by the way, whilst 75 businesses are still trading here, after more than half a century in the borough.

But – not to be complacent – questions can be asked about how much use is being made of all those stellar assets. Less than half of the local population has been to any of those museums in the last year, for example. And only 2% has ventured inside one of the 112 archives registered in the borough. Only a quarter say they have visited a historic park or garden in the last year (though that’s surely higher in our bit of Camden). I was also surprised to see the level of civic engagement around heritage – measured by civic societies and the extent of neighbourhood planning – is surprisingly low.

So – we have lots. Are making the absolute most of it?

* Declaration of interest. HLF researcher = me

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