Attitudes to heritage

June 2024

Cultural Participation Monitor Wave 10 | Spring 2024

This research is from The Audience Agency's nationwide longitudinal (ongoing) panel survey of changing views about participating in creative and cultural activities through the recent and ongoing crises, and beyond, the Cultural Participation Monitor.


We asked the extent to which people agreed or disagreed with a range of statements about history and heritage, to better understand the attitudes which people bring to their engagement. These results were surprising in a number of ways: neither consistently conforming to a traditional nor a progressive perspective. 

A majority of respondents were pro-Empire (‘The British Empire is something British people should be proud of’: 29% strongly agreeing, 31% agreeing) and felt that museums should celebrate British history, not criticise it’ (30% strongly agreeing, 35% agreeing), despite being in favour of repatriation of objects and sharing information about links to slavery (see figures later). These apparently paradoxical responses can perhaps be explained by the insights of David Olusoga, historian of the British Empire, at The Hay Festival this week.

There’s one country left in the British empire that needs to liberate itself and have its independence day from its own history, and that’s Britain.
—  David Olusoga

Sathnam Sangera agreed at the same event that Britain had never had a: “dark night of the soul…where we’ve had to reflect about what we did”. 

There are two ways of interpreting this pattern. One is that this lack of national reflection (or reckoning) has left a nation that wants to think well of its history, but that is anxious about looking at it too closely for fear of what it might see. Another is that British people are in fact confident about their history, and therefore think that critical perspectives are mistaken (or even perverse). Either way, there is a broad view from the public that they want museums to tell a positive story about British history without being critical. 

This is not to say that museums and heritage sites should therefore only provide this version of history. As the US Congressman Casey Weinstein has quoted (original source unknown): 

History should be uncomfortable. If you are not uncomfortable reading history, then you are not reading history, you are reading propaganda.
—  Unknown

There is a lot in British history, when honestly viewed, to be uncomfortable about. But this does highlight the challenge of the dual role that heritage attractions often play: as both preservers, interpreters and witnesses to history, and also as a ‘day out’. Understanding the attitudes that the public bring makes it easier to understand how different types of presentation are likely to ‘land’ with visitors, and where interpretation may at least need to respond to the audience’s starting point. Similarly, where in a leisure context, certain truths could be experienced as disruptive. 

What is notable, however, is both where this site of conflict is and isn’t located. Most people agree that ‘heritage sites should tell visitor about their connections to slavery, if they have them’, (19% strongly agree, 41% agree) despite campaigns that try to oppose such approaches and present them as being controversial and/or unpopular. Similarly, a majority believe that ‘museums in the UK should return objects to where the came from, if they were originally taken by force or stolen’ (22% strongly agree, 35% agree). Whilst there may be debates about whether this statement applies to specific artefacts, there is a clear consensus on the broad principle. In both of these cases only 13-14% of people disagreed (or strongly disagreed). 

On the other hand, most did think that it was ‘wrong to take down statues of historical figures even if we now disagree with that person’s values or actions’ (33% strongly agree, 31% agree, with only 15% disagree or strongly disagree). This suggests a desire to preserve statues as instances of ‘built heritage’ (in line with responses about protecting local heritage). 

In all of these areas, however, there was a stronger ‘progressive’ view from Black, Asian and younger (especially 18-24 year old) respondents, but the overall stance was the same as across the population as a whole (i.e. a majority was still in favour of celebrating British history, being proud of the British Empire or taking down statues, but a smaller majority; a larger majority were in favour of returning artefacts or telling visitors about links to the slave trade). Few respondents agreed that museums shouldn’t display human remains ((5% strongly agree, 14% agree, with 52% in total disagreeing).