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York: How to commodify history

York council recently rejected plans to develop a Roman Quarter in the same street that Society was previously in. Good news, Society is safe, but for how long?

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Image Credit: David Dixon, geograph.org

The reason for its rejection was the argument that York has far too many heritage sites already… 33 to be exact. If any city knows how to make their history an exciting tourist trap, it's probably London, followed closely by York.

Public history is a growing trend in recent years, with the history of Britain consisting of colourful invaders from other nations. So, what exactly constitutes British history, and why should tourists visit? York received 7 million visitors last year before the pandemic hit. It also received a £606 million boost to the economy via tourism alone, with a significant amount of those being heritage sites, which make up eight of York’s 12 most popular attractions.

The council argues that there are too many heritage sites in York may actually be a valid statement. There’s not much history we can squeeze out of York anymore; we have a Viking festival in which eight percent of tourists have visited York purely for the festival itself.  York in particular prides itself on its history and has one of the most popular attractions in the world of all things Viking.  The Jorvik Viking Centre has been called "one of Britain's most popular attractions” by the Vancouver Sun.

If you want to move further forward in the history of York, and forget those degenerate pagans, York boasts one of the largest Churches in Northern Europe, York Minster, which in 2020 was estimated to cost around £23,000 a day to run. But is it a small cost to pay for the £2 billion boost to the UK's economy that North Yorkshire’s heritage sites provide? Needless to say York especially needs it’s heritage sites.

Commodifying history is almost a creative art form. The York Dungeon creates atmosphere with terrifying sets, actors, visual fix, all to communicate a rather sanitised education of the troublesome Vikings to your kids. It’s a type of labour that seems rather important in maintaining the so-called British culture and history with a lens of pride, but the pandemic has revealed, like most things, how fragile our political economy is. With the restriction of social relations, the tourism industry has received a much expected downturn.

The identity of York as a city, is one in celebration of its own past. Tourism is an important component in maintaining that identity. Despite hope that we beat Covid-19 emerging on the horizon, the effects of the pandemic will most likely linger for a long time. Therefore, the rejection of The Roman Quarter in York, is a risky move by the City of York Council. The strategy is perhaps to diversify York’s economy, but the arguments were more concerned about the size of the building, or as Cllr. Mark Warters states: “If we don’t protect the skyline, we’ll be responsible for turning York into Chicago.” There were talks of building affordable housing there instead, which is still being debated over.

When it comes to attracting tourists, the City Council is not very interested in diversifying the economy either. Concerns over nightlife activities quickly shrinking in York, has led to the City of York Council being hesitant in investing in the York nightlife, with The Impossible Bar being met with resistance when trying to turn part of its bar into a club. The hesitance seems strange for a city that has a fairly large student population.

But if York wishes to survive the damage of the virus, the City of York Council must perhaps be more shameless in trying to turn its heritage into profit. If the city wants its economy to recover and grow from the pandemic, York just might have to become more like a historical theme park destined to only produce capital and less of an authentic small city. York needs to meet the increasing economic pressure to change its infrastructure and identity. I may be biased, but as a student I see potential in a Viking themed club that teaches students a valuable British history lesson, such as over-drinking at 11pm and drunken brawls.

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