Building on the past

Preserving the Past - Dissonant Heritage
April 18, 1997

It was Romanticism, with its heightened appreciation of relics from the past and the sense of place they embodied, that effectively marked the terminus a quo in this field with Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott's home, "filled as it was with objects, pictures and even fragments of buildings that Scott valued for their historical associations" the original heritage centre. But Michael Hunter points out in his introduction to this eminently sane and well-written collection of essays chronicling the history of heritage in England (rather than Britain as the title boasts) that we must not mistake heritage awareness for action towards its protection. Such has been the perennial English obsession with private property rights that even the seminal Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882 was severely limited both in its scope and applied to mainly prehistoric sites.

It was not until 1932 that local authorities were empowered to issue preservation orders on inhabited buildings and not until 1968 that owners of listed buildings had to seek explicit permission to alter or demolish them. Hunter thus stresses the novelty of heritage with a capital H and makes the crucial point that "it is not self-evident why either mass leisure or state intervention should be concerned with the relics of the past".

For instance, Chris Miele, in his detailed dissection of the workings of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, shows how its founder, William Morris, limited that group's effectiveness by his pointed reluctance to take account of and liaise with either the church authorities or the Rpyal Institute of British Architects. Timothy Champion's lucid account of archaeological legislation between 1882 and 1994, shows that perhaps the most important factor behind the sea change in attitude was a reorientation of ideas about the industrial phase of the nation's history.

Perhaps the most entertaining chapter, though no less serious in content, is Gavin Stamp's survey of conservation societies in the 20th century. Here the contingent is king and crisis the mother of invention. The emergence of both the Georgian Group and the Thirties' (now 20th Century) Society, for example, can be directly linked to particular events; the first to the successful campaign to save Nash's Carlton House in 1933 and the latter to the blitzkrieg demolition of the Firestone Factory over the August bank holiday weekend of 1980.

It would be invidious to single out individual contributions in this collection of uniformly well-conceived essays, but I cannot omit specific mention of Peter Mandler's fresh account of what is fast becoming a rather hackneyed theme: the transformation of the country house from private home to public symbol nor Michael Stratton's witty and wise survey of the evolution of open-air museums with its useful European and North American comparative dimension.

While other chapters of Hunter's collection would have perhaps benefited from more reference to non-English material, Dissonant Heritage would definitely have been easier to read if its authors had been less global in their aspirations ... and language. For their transatlantic heritagespeak is unrelenting and makes heavy weather of even the most straightforward points. This is not to say that their case-study discussions of managing heritage in Central Europe, Canada and South Africa do not contain useful, contrastive insights; nor that the issues they raise for the implications of bringing heritage criteria to bear on spatial and economic planning worldwide are not important. It is rather that their whole approach is rendered problematic by their dated and unproblematic notion of what history is.

Whatever else heritage is concerned with, its relation to and distinction from other modes of understanding the past - from academic history to the historical novel - is of fundamental importance. Heritage studies requires that different disciplines talk to each other. Surely even after Babel it must be possible to find a language more mutually comprehensible than that adopted by the authors of Dissonant Heritage?

Simon Ditchfield is lecturer in history, University of York.

Preserving the Past: The Rise of Heritage in Modern Britain

Editor - Michael Hunter
ISBN - 0 7509 0951 X
Publisher - Alan Sutton
Price - £25.00
Pages - 218

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