Returning to a changed heritage world

Ros Kerslake
As our CEO Ros Kerslake returns to work after six months of illness, she reflects on the personal challenges she’s overcome, and what the heritage sector now faces.

Today is my second day back at work after abruptly having to put my life on hold in November 2019. Six months ago, out of the blue, I was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia. 

But, if it is possible to be lucky when having cancer, I have been (so far). I had a speedy diagnosis, excellent medical care from all the NHS staff at The Royal Marsden, and successfully completed intensive treatment before the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19). My thoughts are very much with those being diagnosed or in treatment right now. 

"The world, the workplace, and the heritage sector that I am returning to, are, of course, not normal." 

Thankfully, I am now cancer free and, despite having a lot less hair (which is, at least, practical during lockdown) I am more or less back to normal. 

But the world, the workplace, and the heritage sector that I am returning to, are, of course, not normal. 

Facing the crisis 

This is the biggest crisis I have seen in my lifetime. I’m very proud of the way everyone at The Fund has mobilised to support people and organisations working in heritage across the UK.

Within days of moving all our 300 staff to home working, my team surveyed over 1,000 heritage organisations to understand the immediate impact of coronavirus (COVID-19). Using this evidence, we launched our Heritage Emergency Fund, offering emergency grants of between £3,000 and £50,000. We have already approved the first round of applications.

We increased our investment in digital skills for the sector, recognising how important digital expertise will be in a ‘social distancing’ world. And we firmly committed to supporting our existing grantees through this most difficult of times, providing them with greater flexibility on grant payments and making over £31m of grant payments in April.

Next phase of financial help 

But we also recognise that some organisations, particularly independent heritage attractions that are highly dependent on visitor income, may have a higher level of financial need than our initial emergency funding can cover.

I’m pleased to announce therefore – as my first action since returning – a new strand to our Heritage Emergency Fund

Within the current £50m Heritage Emergency Fund, we’re creating a new grant range of £50,000–£250,000. It will be open to past and current grantees.

This new strand will help us:

  • respond to exceptional cases of larger-scale need
  • protect heritage at severe immediate risk
  • and, crucially, safeguard the heritage that can play a key role in the UK’s economic and community regeneration from the impacts of coronavirus (COVID-19)

We are developing the detail for how to apply for these new grants in the coming week. We will actively communicate this when applications are open. In the meantime you can keep up to date with the latest information by following us on social media.

The future for heritage 

The Heritage Emergency Fund will enable us to help those most in need in the immediate term. Our non-financial support, such as the additional investment in digital skills, will help many more organisations adapt to new ways of working and be better equipped to survive.  

This crisis, however, brings new and unique challenges.

Even heritage organisations that have built successful income streams are vulnerable. The impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) will be uneven – the consequences for some communities, regions and types of organisations will be far more significant than for others. And I recognise that despite all our efforts at the Heritage Fund, the difficult fact is that we will not have the resources to help everyone we would like to.

Some heritage organisations are going to have to rethink their future. Given the uncertainty we face, some may have to do so despite their own Herculean efforts even if they have received support from us.

"We are living through an extraordinary time, and neither we – nor our vital, creative sector – will look quite the same again."

We are living through an extraordinary time, and neither we – nor our vital, creative sector – will look quite the same again. But the fundamental importance of heritage in people’s lives, the contribution that it makes to people’s wellbeing, sense of self and of place, the need to protect it for future generations and its value as an employer and to the economy means we must all work together to achieve the best possible outcome. 

So, beyond the immediate funding support we have already launched, I see our role at The Fund as supporting the heritage sector to work through how the future will be different. This must be a joint endeavour, and we will work with the widest group of partners and draw on different and new perspectives to reimagine the heritage sector in the future.

New views 

To start this conversation, this month we are launching ‘Future Heritage’, a series of opinion pieces from a range of leaders across our sector. We hope these diverse views will stimulate new thinking, ideas and debate about the future of heritage in a world after coronavirus (COVID-19).

"All of us involved in heritage know – beyond its economic contribution – how critically important it is." 

All of us involved in heritage know – beyond its economic contribution – how critically important it is. The benefits it delivers will be just as important as we look to the future, if not more so, but our sector will need to innovate and embrace new ways of working to thrive.

It is an unfamiliar landscape that I find myself returning to, but I'm very pleased that I’m back and able to contribute at a time when there’s so much that needs to be done.

Cancer makes you stop and reassess your life. I’ve come out the other end of it feeling that what we as a sector do, and the work of The Fund is more important than ever. Working with our stakeholders, our Board of Trustees, committee members and my team, I look forward to tackling the challenges ahead for the heritage community.  

In the meantime, stay safe and look out for each other. I know how important it is to have the support of family and friends during these extraordinary times.