Heritage and History – part 2

We use the term heritage almost without thinking about it, but it is worth knowing a bit about how the heritage movement has developed and what it is actually about. This post is based on notes I have taken from the book “The Heritage Obsession” by Ben Cowell.

Heritage began with a concern for physical heritage – the bricks and stones of ancient buildings and monuments – but it has grown from that into a much wider remit. A working definition:

“an ongoing concern for the tangible and intangible remains of the past, for the benefit of present and future generations”

Cowell p10

The main thrust of my project is concerned with how we interpret the heritage we have. A key concern of mine is that the intangible heritage (eg the practice of faith) is presented alongside the tangible parts of ancient buildings.

Where and when did heritage begin?

This book is quite focussed on England’s past. The drive to acquire heritage around the world is said to be rooted in the custom of rich young British men doing their Grand Tour and bringing back interesting bits and pieces of historic stuff from other countries. This is how we end up with The British Museum, The Ashmolean and various other collections when private collections are subsequently donated to the nation. This custom, while bringing about the birth of archaeology as a discipline, also involves the destruction of a significant amount of in situ heritage.

To preserve or restore

By the 19th century, there are opposing arguments about whether ancient ruins should be left as ruins or restored. Should monuments in danger of further ruination be prevented from deteriorating further, or not?

Sir Walter Scott and others writing in the 19th century romanticised the olden days, “an indeterminate period in English History that lay somewhere between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries” (Cowell, p55).

John Ruskin has a significant influence on the philosophy of heritage and argues passionately against restoration (thus avoiding pastiche), but in favour of maintenance to prevent deterioration. He coins the idea of the ‘Great Entail’ – that buildings belong to both past and future generations. He considers church buildings something of a special case – make only the changes necessary to Divine Worship. (Later leaders of heritage would probably dispute this allowance).

William Morris follows on and takes things further:

“Our ancient buildings are not mere ecclesiastical toys, but sacred monuments of the nation’s growth and hope”

William Morris, writing in The Athenaeum, quoted in Cowell, p76

Who pays? Who decides?

During the 19th century, there were several different approaches to heritage, each embodied by a particular exponent.

  • Aubrey – it is up to the owners what they do with their heritage. Their responsibility, their decision.
  • Stukeley – independent bodies (e.g. Society for preservation of ancient monuments) name and shame those owners who are not living up to their responsibilities.
  • Lubbock – impose laws that require owners to comply with heritage

In the end, Lubbock’s view prevailed but the process of getting laws on the statute book was tortuous and lengthy.

Different classes of heritage

A distinction is made between Ancient Monuments and buildings in current use, including ecclesiastical buildings. A delicate balance is required to retain the support of those living in, or responsible for, significant buildings.

Ancient Monuments are protected by the Preservation of Ancient Monuments Act 1882, and subsequent amendments and updated legislation. Initially somewhat toothless, by mid-twentieth century, legislation gives power to compel preservation and require notice of any proposed changes to be given.

Buildings in current residential or ecclesiastical use are not protected until 1947 when the listed buildings system comes into being with the Town and Country Planning Act. In a major change, no compensation is payable to owners of listed buildings if the listing results in extra costs. Previously there was some compensation paid to owners of monuments. In later years, legislation is introduced so that grants may be given to owners of listed buildings.

Extent of protected buildings and areas

In 2008, there were in England (Cowell p128):

  • around 500,000 listed buildings
  • around 20,000 scheduled monuments
  • around 9,000 conservation areas
  • around 1,600 registered parks and gardens
  • 17 world heritage sites

Heritage is a big part of the economy – closely related to tourism – controlled from government by the Department of National Heritage, later Culture, Media and Sport. English Heritage is the principal statutory advisor to the government on heritage matters.

Reasons to preserve

There is a recognition that heritage (or at least some of it) is a ‘public good’, “a resource which generates a range of benefits over and above those that are enjoyed solely by the individuals who own or use it” (Cowell p128). There is a somewhat slippery relation to finance – one person’s enjoyment of heritage doesn’t detract from another person’s so there is no true market price for heritage, i.e. it is not a zero-sum game. Value is found in knowing that heritage is there even if you never visit it and also in knowing that it will still be there for future generations – existence value and bequest value.

Economic benefits of heritage are difficult to measure. The direct employment by the heritage sector is small, but the impact is much larger. Consider a heritage tourist attraction which may employ less than 20 people, but boost employment in the local area through the shops, cafes, caravan parks, hotels and other services that are then needed. Also people employed in allied crafts necessary to the preservation and restoration of buildings.

Environmental benefits – sustainable development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Cowell p137?). Restoration and conservation may use less energy and other resources than new-build. Heritage materials and methods may be more environmentally viable.

There are also social benefits to heritage:

  • education, both school-based and life-long learning
  • skill development for volunteers
  • maintains social identity

And finally

Heritage has:

  • Intrinsic value, as objects or places or practices
  • Instrumental value, through the range of benefits that it delivers
  • Institutional value, of the organisation undertaking heritage work