Grave-robbing and heritage: the problem of conserving the past – Part 1

Laura Sangha

When the tomb of Edward I was opened in Westminster Abbey in 1771, the renowned antiquarian Richard Gough allegedly reached into the gaping coffin and snagged himself a little royal memento. The incident was recorded by William Cole, and it is recounted by Rosemary Sweet in her Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain (p. 278):

Mr G was observed to put his Hand into the Coffin and immediately apply it to his Pocket: but not so dexterously that the Dean of Westminster saw it: he remonstrated against the Proprietary of it, and Mr G denying the Fact, the Dean insisted on the Pocket being searched: when they found that he had taken a Finger; which was replaced.

Who wouldn’t want to nab one of those lovely digits for posterity?

In Gough’s defence, I should add the proviso that Cole was not sure whether to believe the story or not. But let’s assume the story is true and that Gough had attempted to make off with a macabre souvenir of this momentous occasion. At first it seems shocking that a well-respected antiquarian, someone dedicated to uncovering and preserving the nation’s past, might act in such a selfish and self-centred way. But the more you think about it, the less surprising it is. Put yourself in Gough’s shoes – wouldn’t you be tempted to take a piece of the nation’s glorious history for your own? Or would your sense of ‘proprietary’ and your respect for the dead stay your hand? What harm would it do to lift one of those smaller bones, wouldn’t there still be plenty left? You would look after it and treasure that little finger, and get great pleasure from possessing it, wouldn’t you?

Beyond this particular dilemma the reality is that conserving the documents and objects of the past is a cultural, technical, economic, intellectual and moral minefield. Wherever you turn conservation is fraught with ideals in tension and competing interests, and each contributor to the argument has perfectly reasonable logic to support their point of view. Tricky questions abound: who owns the relics of the past, and who should be given access to them? How to you balance preservation with exhibition? What’s the point of conserving anything, and how do you decide which bits should be kept? Preservation or restoration? Open access or aggressive protectionism?

Pompeii crumbles awayWe have all heard stories of archivists who are so intent on protecting their collection that they become more a hindrance than a help in attempting to access the stuff of the past. Yet at the same time we can sympathise with the impulse to protect and extend the life of the fragile documents that are so crucial to being able to understand our history – it’s just that, if no one gets to see them, how can those histories be written? It’s not only paper that needs to be protected either. For many years now, worrying stories about the disintegration of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, a UNESCO world heritage site, have littered the news, with the site becoming a symbol for what some see as decades of mismanagement of Italy’s cultural sites. Pompeii is fundamental to our understanding of everyday life in ancient Rome, and it receives about 2.5 million visitors each year. It isn’t hard to make a case for its international significance and value, but it does seem that it is very hard to effectively conserve it.

For me, it was a recent visit to Sir John Soane’s museum in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields that brought the issues into sharp focus. It’s a fascinating place – Soane was a Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy and a great collector, with a houseful of books, casts and models. In 1833 he negotiated an Act of Parliament to settle and preserve the house and collection for the benefit of ‘amateurs and students’ in architecture, painting and sculpture, on the condition that the interiors be kept as they were at the time of his death. In the nineteenth century some alterations were made to the house however, and a five-year restoration programme to restore the museum is just reaching its final stages.

Soane's Museum interior 1864 and 2014.

Sir John Soane’s Museum, interior in 1864 and 2014.

Today this little museum is enormously popular. It is on the tourist trail and appears on the Lonely Planet’s list of best museums and galleries in London.  Indeed, it is a wonderful place, and was of particular interest to me, given that my current research is on Ralph Thoresby, another chap whose house also doubled up as a museum. However, Soane’s museum was very busy and overcrowded, and it wasn’t easy to negotiate around the narrow walkways and tight corners whilst also keeping well away from the innumerable artefacts that clogged every available surface. Whilst waiting to go into one room, we had an illuminating discussion with the volunteer who was guarding the door. Having started with a pleasantry that it was rather busy, the volunteer curtly told us that the popularity of the museum was a disaster. We wondered why that was – surely high visitor numbers helped to secure the museums future? Not so – it is free to enter the museum, so large numbers of visitors bought more trouble and damage than they were worth. The volunteer went on to state that it was ridiculous that the site had become a tourist attraction, and that he believed the museum should be returned to its original function – as a library and resource for architectural students only.

museum exteriorThis brief exchange left me with lots of questions. Instinctively, as a professional historian, I felt that I was a more worthy visitor that the gaggling mass of rather uncomprehending tourists who zoomed round the museum before consulting their guidebooks to check out the next stop on the museum trail. But according to the volunteer, I had as little right to view the museum as them, and admittedly it is true that seeing the museum was hardly vital to my research. I do pay taxes in the UK though, and given that a large part of the museum’s funding comes from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, surely I was a stakeholder in the museum? And what about the trustees’ responsibility to ensure that the collection is accessible to the general public? Soane’s museum is therefore an excellent window into the heritage problem, which I will be exploring further in my second post on this topic next week.

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10 thoughts on “Grave-robbing and heritage: the problem of conserving the past – Part 1

    • This is really interesting stuff, Laura. I’ve encountered this problem with archives several times, myself and also by hearing about other peoples’ experiences second-hand. There’s nothing more annoying than being prevented from viewing an original document, for example, because there is an (illegible) microfilm copy the staff want you to look at instead. I also did some filming for a BBC documentary a few years ago (the material never made it on screen!), and the librarian who supplied the document we were discussing would not permit anybody but himself to turn the pages. As a professional historian, this sort of treatment always makes me a bit cross, but it does make you think. Perhaps archivists look down on historians in precisely the same way that I have sometimes caught myself looking down on the hordes of amateur genealogists who can sometimes make working in an archive a bit of a challenge. Who am I to say that I should be there, but they shouldn’t be allowed to find out about their past? And what is the point of preserving material, if by doing so you make it invisible? Perhaps technology will solve this problem, for archives at least, by eventually creating a digital record of everything which is as good to work with as the original. Although I can’t see funding for that kind of project appearing any time soon…

      • Thanks Jonathan – yes, it seems that despite our training, the historian can sometimes be insensitive to other perspectives on this in their rush to see and interpret the data. But the family historian, the archivist, the museum volunteer all have equally valid claims. As for the digitisation issue, I haven’t even touched upon here, but both you and Mary Beard draw attention to the alternative reality models (the photograph of a documents, the digital reconstruction of an ancient city) that people might be able to access in lieu of the fragile originals. As you rightly point out, there is no way to try to digitise every resource though, so someone must take decisions about what is most important and useful, and what isn’t.

      • Just a quick comment to say that digital preservation is not the answer to all of these problems – as a number of previous discussions on this blog have highlighted, we also lose something as historians if we deal only with ‘virtual’ sources and not with originals.

  1. Good points raised here, both explicit and implicit. Are we unknowingly destroying what we come to see? Do we all have a right to see the past or do we have to earn it? Whose past is it anyway and, in a democratic society, are we all rightful heirs to the country’s ‘heritage’, whether in private or public ownership?

    • Many thanks for your interest! Yes, you have summed it up perfectly. We have a tendency to think of the past as a national resource, something that we all share and own, and as a result we feel a sense of entitlement towards it. The roots of this are much earlier I suspect – the development of some of the first museums in the eighteenth century was very much tied up with a new national self confidence. Patriotism was served by the discovery and preservation of the national past, and therefore was an important motivating factor for many. These days our prestigious museums are in a sense there to advertise and display our historic credentials and achievements, and they are an important jewel in the tourist industry’s crown.

      • Yes indeed. It would be interesting to see where people stand on the political spectrum compared with their attitude towards heritage. Would, say, irresponsible metal detectorists tend towards the far right and volunteer diggers and guides be left of centre?

      • An intriguing suggestion! I wonder where UKIP stand on the topic of heritage? I see their mission statement includes the principle that they will ‘teach children positive messages and pride in their country’. Though I suppose I would be surprised if there was a straightforward connection or even a neat trend between politics and attitudes towards heritage and conservation.

  2. Pingback: Grave-robbing and heritage: the problem of conserving the past – Part 2 | the many-headed monster

  3. Pingback: Memorial and history, Part 4: in which several fights break out and a man is murdered in the Solomon Islands | the many-headed monster

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