Measuring Results: Larry Coben Challenges the Cultural Heritage Community at UCL Conference

“Changing lives locally,” “economic development,” “safeguarding sites in the developing world,” “community-based”—all of these phrases are tossed around in the discussion of how to best preserve our shared cultural heritage today. All are important concepts, but who is applying them, how are they doing it, and, most importantly, do they actually work?

At University College London’s recent “Archaeology and Economic Development” Conference, held from September 21-22, Dr. Larry Coben of the Sustainable Preservation Initiative (SPI) challenged conference attendees with the following (not-so-radical) radical statement: Preservation organizations need to measure the results of their work.

The conference focused on the, at times, tumultuous relationship between archaeology and economic development. Indeed, precious cultural heritage sites and local communities in impoverished areas have often been at odds. To provide themselves and their families with basics, local residents in some areas use the sites for other purposes—whether looting excavated artifacts or planting crops on the site and grazing animals at the site. In other regions, sites have been flattened to make way for commercial centers or new homes that promise greater economic development. Recently, however, the dichotomy of site vs. local community has been exposed as false and replaced with the following question: How can the archaeological site itself contribute to the economic development of a community?

This is one of the central tenets of SPI, chief sponsor of the UCL Conference. A new non-profit, SPI has invested in locally-created and –owned artisanal workshops whose sales are dependent on tourists visiting the local archaeological site. Without the site, business stops, so the preservation of cultural heritage becomes imperative to a community that wants sustainable income.

To date, SPI has supported local entrepreneurs at two endangered archaeological sites in northern Peru with several more about to start. As hinted at above, SPI is concerned with results. Is our cultural heritage actually being preserved, and is it being preserved for the long-term?

Coben’s answer: Let’s collect data. “Most organizations, to the extent they have disclosed any information at all, have published broad vague missives about economic potential and community benefit rather than providing meaningful measures of their results, both positive and negative,” stated Coben. By measuring results at preservation projects, we can figure out what works and what doesn’t. We can know why a certain project succeeded or why it failed. Without data collection, the important concepts we talk so much about remain just that, concepts. And while concepts and theories are important, testing those concepts in the form of real projects with real metrics is vital.

SPI looks forward to the time when measuring results for preservation projects becomes common practice and when data comparison across projects from various organizations is the focus, rather than clarion call, of conferences regarding our shared cultural heritage.

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