Interview with Gemma Carbó, director of the Museum of Rural Life in Catalonia: the economic impact of cultural heritage, a different outlook

Can you briefly introduce the Museum of Rural Life, its vision and context?

With the aim of preserving and disseminating the legacy of Mediterranean rurality, the Museum of Rural Life (MVR) opened its doors in 1988 at the site of the old house of the Carulla family in L'Espluga de Francolí (Spain). Lluís Carulla i Canals, founder of the MVR, was profoundly aware of the value that customs and traditions have as part of the past cultural heritage. In 2009, after modernising and expanding the permanent exhibition, and with the aim of becoming a major international player in the fields of culture, rurality and sustainable development, the museum decided to expand its remit to include a vision of the present and for future of the rural world.

The museum preserves tangible and intangible heritage: it hosts an important collection of tools and objects related to farming, ancient trades, and domestic and community life in small villages but also an important archive of photographic, oral history and other documents on natural health, food and celebrations in rural life. The collection also includes artistic works, such as wall paintings and sculptures, related to agriculture, traditional work and crafts, lifestyle, and culture in rural areas. Central to the project are an organic and an ethnobotanical garden where different activities relating to agriculture, traditional knowledge and sustainable food are carried out.

Traditional life in rural areas called for specific skills for the use of natural resources and communities were organised around a circular economy. The industrial revolution and ensuing urbanisation processes put an end to this way of life. As it is, the past offers interesting examples, but also bad practices, from which to assess the effects of the transition from rural to urban life and such knowledge is now useful in the quest for a more sustainable development model.

The museum’s temporary exhibitions and activities tackle key themes such as the appearance of materials such as plastic, the management of water resources but also clean energy, sustainable transport, circular economy and traditional trades, forest management. They also address other issues related to sustainability, such as gender equality.

The MVR is committed to educating for sustainability through culture and the arts. To this end, its educational project connects the museum's work with the global agendas at European and international level: the UNESCO Roadmap for arts education (UNESCO 2006) and the Educational Objectives of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development (UNESCO 2017) represent a commitment to transforming and improving people's lives, without excluding anyone, and to respect the planet.

Do you agree that cultural heritage can produce cultural, social, economic and environmental impacts, why, in which way?

Cultural heritage is ultimately the accumulated knowledge of humanity translated into objects, documents, knowledge, and expressions. We build our personal and collective ways of life on this heritage. Enriching it allows us to develop our humanity, also as a social group; losing it means impoverishing ourselves. The link between memory and health, for example, is very explicit and we know about wonderful programmes based on heritage to combat diseases such as Alzheimer; beyond this, the effects of the arts and cultural on well-being are also well known and proven. In our country, initiatives such as "Apropa cultura" highlight the impact of these experiences among the most vulnerable groups. We could also speak of course of the impact on education, as seen in the development of new forms of learning, teaching and management of fundamental skills for the future, such as empathy, communication and creative imagination. In economic terms, the impact is also well analysed and made explicit in studies on cultural and tourist consumption or as regards the generation of employment, also resilient. Perhaps the most complex measurement is that of the impact in terms of social cohesion or inclusion because there is a lack of studies in our country based on experiences in this sense.

Nowadays it is the economic dimension that has the most weight in the narratives on the contribution of culture and cultural heritage, and which is the most researched. What positive and negative aspects can be rescued from this reality?

I think the problem lies in understanding the economy in purely monetary and consumption terms. For some time now, we have been calling for participation in cultural life as a fundamental right. The market is one of the formulas that guarantee this participation, but not the only nor the most important one. In the current context in which environmental, economic, and social crises are at the forefront, participation in cultural life is a political instrument to safeguard democratic consensus and establish spaces for dialogue. As the Special Rapporteur for Cultural Rights points out in her General Comment no. 21, tools for participation are provided for not by the market but lifelong education. Participation implies having a political voice, access but, above all, and this is the big difference, being able to contribute. If we do not preserve our memory and increase it with our contributions, there will be no business around heritage, and investments will never be profitable in business terms. But furthermore, if we do not value knowledge socially, if illiteracy in languages such as music, visual arts or dance, to name a few, is the norm, then we can neither participate nor contribute. If we do not have the right to vote but also no possibility to access or contribute from our diverse reality, we are clearly excluded. If we have no freedom to express ourselves creatively, we have no options. The right must therefore be guaranteed by public authorities.  

Having said this, we have worked hard since the 1990s to demonstrate the impact that heritage-related activity has on the generation of jobs and employment or on the chain of production and service provision. It is absurd to think that development does not carry the basis for growth and material well-being that can be linked to this resource whose distribution is the most equitable on the planet if we ensure that the management of cultural and natural heritage by their communities of origin.

From where can one look at the link between the economy and a museum like the one you run? 

The Museum of Rural Life sees itself as a key economic actor in its territory. It therefore actively participates in the debates for the county’s strategic plans and economic promotion. Development in rural areas has been marked by an urban-centred and industrial vision that has led to an obvious problem: depopulation and the loss of connection with the economic activities that are typical of the rural world such as agriculture, livestock, crafts and forestry management. The Agenda 2030 for sustainable development and the rural agenda that is currently being drawn up in Catalonia emphasise the need to build resilient communities in rural environments that rely on the recovery of knowledge and activities that were considered useless by modernity but that are being visualised today as the basis for innovation. We are talking about cultural landscapes, the recovery of traditional crops, handicrafts combined with contemporary artistic outlooks or the recovery of extensive livestock farming and forestry, the reuse of wood in bioconstruction and the fashion design with organic materials, to give just some examples. 

In this sense, the museum is an economic operator that offers itself as a tourist, educational and social attraction through its permanent and temporary exhibitions, its diverse and wide-ranging educational and cultural activities. These activities generate 20% of its ordinary budget and contribute to the local commerce, restaurants and hotels, as well as to other cultural consumption in the territory. 

In addition, the museum also organises debates based on its collection and activities on the economic development model and on the needs of the territory. Strategically, the Museum and the Carulla Foundation are working on the definition of a mutual laboratory, Mutare, to support scientific and artistic research as well as the promotion of cultural projects and undertakings that respond to the challenges of the rural world. This laboratory and development axis will be implemented in the coming years and is based on the awards and support programs that the Foundation has always given to transformative cultural and educational projects.  

As you know, SoPHIA seeks to propose a holistic cultural heritage assessment model, which challenges and opportunities do you envision?

This is a fundamental task. Measuring impact is very necessary not only to improve arguments in terms of seeking resources, but especially to verify the results of the decisions of heritage managers and reorient strategies if it is shown, as we often sense, that we are not achieving the changes we were looking for. The opportunity is important, the challenge is to design a system that truly adapts to the complex system of realities involved in cultural heritage.  

In your role as a professional, do you think it could be a good tool?

Indeed. We need it urgently, but the tool will be of little use if we do not change our vision of our work and the meaning of heritage sites. As always, it is important that the tool does not replace the previous visualisation of the ‘why’ and the ‘where to’. 

Anything else you would like to add?

Thank you for your interest and congratulations on the project, we will be looking forward to the results!


Image: ©Museu de la Vida Rural

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