The Significance of Heritage

Text of a five-minute response I was asked to make at the South-Central Regional conference of the RSA on Heritage, Southampton in June 11th 2016. Like a lot of my contributions it took the form of a provocation designed to promote some lateral thinking about the comforts of the subject. As is also usual there is a lot of recycled material in here too, so some of it might seem familiar. 

I don’t have any quarrel with the basic thrust of what Joanna Massie has to say – it’s all useful practical stuff about how we FRSAs can get stuck in – but something is lacking for me. I am hoping that the assemblage of critical minds in this room will be able to absorb a few ideas in 5 minutes for later discussion.

  1. Buildings, artefacts and landscapes are the tangible and so easier to deal with, measure etc; but this leads to a partial view. Such discourse comes out of a pre-occupation with the built environment, museums, industrial, parks, landscape, infrastructure. And memory I will admit, but only recently a preoccupation.

So these artefacts become what is valued from the past – the link between heritage, identity and place. Similarly we can cope with discussing the role of heritage in the economic cultural and social strategy – city-region, local distinctiveness, place-based identities – as does the RSA Heritage Index.

  1. Conserving the heritage: The ICOMOS Burra Charter from Australia defines preservation as to retard deterioration but conservation? – to retain significance.
  1. Then there is for me the difficulty of engagement: I am somewhat exercised by the “fit” of the Fellow in all this. In the implementation of RSA projects why does the RSA present us continually with this problem of whose leadership-ownership, whilst the FRSAs face a question of engagement and volunteering?
  1. Because People are the intangible

Where are the people in this, the focus on human activity? The place of human aspiration, inspiration; the sense of history – the from-to (“how will we know where we are going when we do not know from whence we came” etc)?

I might re-propose we talk not about place-based identities but the place of the person. Before human intervention there is space; it is we that make it into a place. Architects often talk of the voids, those awkward spaces that are a negative imprint of the surrounding human shaping and which they often call in a hapless landscape architect somehow to “fill”.

It is worth bearing mind in this human intervention in the void or space that makes place, that just as we are mortal so is there the mortality of place. And also of significance – witness the reaction recently to the discovery of a large buried platform at Petra. Clearly important but what was it and why is it there?

  1. People are not neat

Heritage is part of a cultural (expressive?) continuum which runs from creativity to culture to heritage.

Creativity starts outside the pale: critical, uncomfortable, disturbing, rejected more often than not. It takes a while for the wild youth to grow into a person with children and a mortgage and reach acceptance into the culture, a proper “place”. And then they die, perhaps now to be transferred into the heritage, valued from the past. In the UK it is extremely difficult as a creative to get into the culture budget. Because a lot of heritage is in fact funded out of the culture budget – four London orchestras churning out endless versions of Mozart and Beethoven for example – and which is denying access to many new expressions. I won’t say by design but catch my drift. One way of avoiding discomfort?

  1. The Guardians of Significance

You will have noticed that, tantalizingly, I’ve mentioned significance a few times. I think that the Australian Kerr, who extended the definitions of the 1988 ICOMOS view on heritage to make the human properly central, worked hard on the assessment of significance.

Questions to assess the significance of a heritage asset: (see James Simple Kerr 1996)

  1. Has it played a role in our development?
  2. Is there a danger of broken continuity in our history if we don’t conserve it?
  3. Does it have a value beyond itself (i.e. the people who lived there)?
  4. Is it pleasing in form?
  5. Is it a witness to our history?
  6. Will we lose social cohesion if we do not keep it?
  7. Is it a beacon to our shared values?
  1. And then what are we going to do about the human heritage in cyber-space, so eminently intangible?

Or is that now cyber-place? But I’ve run out of time… 

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