Grave-robbing and heritage: the problem of conserving the past – Part 2

Laura Sangha

In the first post of this heritage double-header, I discussed my recent visit to Sir John Soane’s Museum – a trip that raised a number of questions about the best way to preserve the past, and the difficulties of doing so. Here I continue the theme by drawing out some key areas and offering some possible solutions:

Open access to the past – no doubt we would like all archives and historical artefacts to be freely available to the public, but that is hardly practicable. In reality open access damages the relics of the past and shortens their life span.

Do the Soane’s museum’s limited walkways validate limited access?

Limited access to the past – do some people have more right to see collections than others? Do those who help fund preservation, or whose interest goes beyond mere curiosity (the benefactor, the architecture student, the historian) have a better claim? How can that be squared with public funding of heritage or with sites with particular national, international or global importance?

Resources – conservation is an expensive business, and rightly is not at the top of a government’s budgetary plans. One way to raise funds is to attract visitors who will spend money in the gift shop, on the guide book, or on a tour. Some collections wouldn’t survive without this income, but attracting large visitor numbers brings further preservation problems.

Meaning of preservation – surely the crux of the heritage questions lies here – why do we want to keep this stuff anyway? The past can help us to understand ourselves as a society or nation, but only if people actually encounter it. Perhaps we should limit access to a few chosen experts, whose remit is to tell other people about it? But isn’t that unfair? And who gets to choose who the experts are and polices their outputs?

Process of preservation – How do we decide what is worth protecting, especially given that historical tastes shift so dramatically over time? Something that one generation values might be seen as rubbish by the next. During the dissolution of the monasteries, manuscripts that we would consider to be priceless were used to wipe boots and wrap food in, highlighting the tendency for ritual and deliberate destruction of the past for political or propaganda purposes. What universal priorities might there be to identify what is important and to provide rules for preservation?

Means of preservation – a recent trend is for historically important buildings to be adapted in order to preserve them. Old meeting houses and chapels that have fallen into disuse are renovated to create characterful homes or blocks of apartments. Abandoned warehouses become nightclubs, archaic power stations art galleries. On my street in Exeter, the old electricity building has become a climbing centre – inside photographs show the interior as it used to be, and original features such as the floor to ceiling tiling can now be seen by anyone that wanders in (you don’t have to pay or climb!). Across the river the splendid seventeenth-century Custom House is now a shop, complete with original plasterwork, wood paneled walls and a sweeping staircase – again, when the shop is open then the public can explore to their heart’s content.

Exeter's Quay Climbing Centre breaths new life into the Old Electricity Works.

Exeter’s Quay Climbing Centre breaths new life into the Old Electricity Works.

Making the past benefit the present – changing the purpose of a building is of course a compromise – it will alter the contours and function of the original, and in the case of a conversion to private dwellings, only preserves the exterior for the benefit of the public. But I have to admit to being rather sympathetic to this. Evidently we do not have the means to secure every historical monument that we would like to, and a change of purpose does give buildings a more secure future, albeit an altered one. But this is not simply pragmatic – I also think that if the social function of a building has become redundant, then it is a virtue to open the space up to a new constituency by making it useful and appealing to them. The ‘Wetherspoons’ pub chain has a strong track record here. In Exeter it has two pubs in historic repurposed buildings: George’s Meeting House with its cavernous, airy interior, splendid stained glass, twin galleries and pews, is a particular delight (even with the gaming machines that now obscure the magnificent pulpit).

Meanwhile the ‘Imperial’ has gone through many transformations recently: originally a nineteenth-century grand private dwelling, it became a hotel in the 1920s before being bought by the chain in the 1980s. None of this has reduced the visual impact of the magnificent orangery.

exeter imperial_orangeryAnd ultimately I am left wondering – what is the purpose of preserving something for as long as humanly possible, to the exclusion of everything else? Surely the stuff of the past is only useful if we actually benefit from it? Intrinsically it is all just bits of stone, wood and paper, lumpish and meaningless until a human actively engages with and imparts meaning to it. Isn’t it preferable that millions of people get to see Pompeii before the inevitable happens and it dissolves back into the dust, rather than pointlessly extending its life whilst nobody is allowed near it?

Thus perhaps sensitive compromise is the order of the day. To return to the Sir John Soane’s Museum, given the chance, there were things that I would have liked to discuss further with my volunteer. Currently the museum does limit the number of people allowed into the museum at any one time, but other measures might alleviate overcrowding. Could a one-way system be introduced to allow visitors to navigate the house? Maybe this could be co-ordinated with the times of guided (paid) tours to prevent blockages in the narrow walkways. For smaller heritage sites (often those most in need of cash) perhaps we should reconsider the principle that all museums are free – currently collections that are funded directly by the central government are all free to view. Yet charging admittance to some places could raise revenue and redirect the more casual tourist away to larger, better equipped, free attractions. My first post provoked lots of response from archivists and historians on twitter and this issue was raised by several people. Probably better than paid entrance is Manya Zuba’s suggestion that free viewings should be by appointment, with slots available throughout the day (short term exhibitions at various museums and galleries, including the British Museum, already use a booking system like this). As Sjoerd Levelt pointed out, this would add a threshold, ‘but one that can be ameliorated by some proper thinking about well-aimed inclusive policies’. Access would therefore be open to all, if they were sufficiently interested to plan ahead and spend the time making an appointment.

Finally, Soane’s museum also currently houses the original series of paintings for William Hogarth’s ‘A Rake’s Progress’, although you can only view them briefly if the attendant is on hand to open up panels to reveal them. My guess would be that the paintings are important in drawing visitors to the museum – perhaps they might be better placed somewhere where greater numbers of people could see them to better advantage. Maybe more, and more friendly information should be given to visitors to explain the current arrangements and to encourage visitors to be especially careful when navigating around the museum.

(c) Sir John Soanes Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Detail from painting four of The Rake’s Progress – ‘A Rake Arrested, going to court’. The incredible detail in William Hogarth’s paintings richly rewards sustained examination, but there is little opportunity for this currently.

But these are just the musings of an amateur who knows very little about this complex issue. There aren’t any simple answers as to how we should conserve our national heritage, and at every stage the interests of different groups must be carefully balanced and weighed. And of course I wouldn’t really steal a finger out of a grave, however long-dead and important it’s owner was.

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One thought on “Grave-robbing and heritage: the problem of conserving the past – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Grave-robbing and heritage: the problem of conserving the past – Part 1 | the many-headed monster

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