Heritage in the Media

[Re-posted from Whose Heritage is it?]

This last week on UK television has featured at least two programmes covering heritage issues. On Wednesday, The Culture Show (BBC2) did a whistle-stop tour of various sites of contest and included historian Dr Richard Miles querying the very idea of heritage. On Thursday, the last in the series Heritage! The Battle for Britain’s Past (BBC4) illuminated the direction of policy after WW2. Meanwhile I have picked up on three stories surfacing in the printed media.

Adam Gabbatt (The Guardian, 21 March, page 23) focused on conflict in Memphis, Tennessee, over a park previously named after Nathan Bedford Forrest and now to be renamed. Forrest was a prominent 19th-century civic figure in Memphis, supposedly instrumental in bringing the railways to the city, served as a Lieutenant-General in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War (i.e. the losing side) and later became a city councillor and an early member of the Ku Klux Klan. Present day Klan members are opposing the change of name on the grounds that the council is ‘trying to erase white history from the history books’.

Mark Smith (The Guardian, 22 March, page 30) covered the story of Glossop Library in Derbyshire. The library is housed in the Victoria Hall, which was established through the patronage of Lord Howard in 1888 with a legal covenant that the land gifted to the town council should be ‘for the purpose of the erection of a public free library and public hall thereon’. The County Council wants to move its library out of the building, in trust to Glossop Borough Council, and build a brand new library at a cost of £2 million. A local campaign, Glossop Soul (Save Our Unique Library) opposes the move and wants the existing building to be modernised and kept in its intended use. Local opinion is divided.

Meanwhile in April’s issue of The Garden (magazine of the Royal Horticultural Society) there is an impassioned article (page 23) by Lia Leendertz in defence of public allotments. Some local authorities, strapped for cash as many are, seek to sell off publicly owned allotments to developers. They argue that this is in the wider interests of the overall community, while allotment holders are a minority of selfish, privileged individuals. The writer draws on the history of allotments to fight her corner, citing the 1845 General Enclosure Act. At that time some 615,000 acres of land were enclosed, while 2200 acres were converted into allotments for the poor (0.36%). There is (only arguably) less poverty and dependence on allotments, but these are ‘our last fingerhold on the vast tracts of land we could once call upon, carved off millions of acres at a time. No-one should be regarded as selfish for defending that’.

Heritage attaches to public park names, the products of a bygone era of gentry patronage and a long and unfinished battle over rights to common land. In each case a decision has to be made. In each case there are vociferous opponents and proponents and valid arguments on both sides. Heritage is an arena of cultural, social and political conflict, with underlying forces of change, both material and cultural. Who is to decide? Do the answers have to be homogenous? Should we sanitise history? Should what was decided in the past determine what we can do in the present and for the future?


Objects of Identification: Heritage and History


I took this photo on a visit to Bede’s World, near Jarrow, where I was taking part in an AHRC-funded project on co-design in heritage. I simply had to go across the park from the main building to the ancient church of St Paul, Jarrow. Tucked away by the altar is this ancient chair that has been dated back to the mid to late Saxon period and is generally referred to as ‘Bede’s Chair’. It has great personal significance for me, and perhaps for others.

In the context of heritage theory there is a great deal of discussion about identity formation and the role that can be played by heritage objects (places, buildings, things). Most of this theory starts from the object, rather than the person. In the process it misses the essential, individual emotional connection and the process through which that is created (or not – not everyone succumbs to this).

I was born in Darlington. Normally one’s birthplace might be expected to be a place of identification. It is for me to a small degree, but it has no emotional pull. I have lived there for two periods in my life, between them amounting for almost half. But I have no desire to go back there to live any more. The town has resonance through memories of events that happened to me there, not so much the place itself. Some memories are not always happy, the associations not always positive, though the majority are.

One event was brought to mind the moment the location of our project workshop was announced. Way back in 1959 or 1960, I was on a school bus trip to explore Hadrian’s Wall, starting from Wallsend and visiting places en route to Housesteads Roman Fort. I had already begun to form an emotional identification with County Durham, mostly through reading a book called ‘Land of the Three Rivers’.

On the first sight of ‘Bede’s Chair’ when we arrived at St Paul’s it was as if something from an ancient past had grabbed hold of me inside. I became a Northumbrian from that moment to the present. No matter where I have lived in the past, where I live now or where I might live in the future, this will stay with me.

I have no desire to see a new tier of regional government based on Durham City, Newcastle, or Yeavering for that matter. I don’t fly the Northumbrian flag out of my bedroom window. I don’t particularly take an interest in regional football teams (though it is somewhat romantic that Darlington FC is now toiling away in the depths of the Northern League).

Being Northumbrian is an emotional thing. It is more relevant to me than being English – that is just the country of birth, the language I speak – and something far more vital than being British, yet another imposed identity value. Being Northumbrian is something I chose, though it felt as if it chose me. I guess it is that two-way process that creates identity.

And what could be more appropriate than to blog this on St Cuthbert’s Day, 20 March! Yet another part of this identity process, alongside listening to Kathryn Tickell play the small pipes, books on the Anglo-Saxons, spending the real Millenium day on Holy Island (1 Jan 2001). This is Heritage, but let’s not kid ourselves that it has anything to do with its analytical cousin, History.

York Social – The Gathering

On Saturday evening, 9 March 2013, we followed up the successful ‘Luddite Wake’ from January with ‘York Social-The Gathering’ in the Golden Ball pub in York. The format is a bit unusual, incorporating acoustic music, not always folk music and with songs not always accompanied by instruments, mixed in with poetry in any format, along with reading of interesting items of prose. It is billed as words, songs and music ‘by the people, of the people and for the people’, so it tends to have a critical political edge, or at least an undercurrent of social commentary. This first attempt was somewhat experimental and we did it ’round the room’, with a full house and not a lot of room for those of us who brought guitars, which had a very democratic effect and created a friendly, informal atmosphere. It was decidedly hard work to organise it and to compere it on the night, but once again we unearthed some new talent and the feedback suggested that some of those who might not have put themselves forward before, will do so in future. What one might call a ‘result’! Time will tell whether the idea will progress and how it might evolve in future. But it is good to have created a cultural space for the beleaguered ‘left’ in hard times. By coincidence, while preparing for the night, I discovered that Geordie Radical and Utopian Socialist Thomas Spence had just such an idea back around 1807-1810, meeting in the Fleece Inn, Old Windmill Lane, London. He called his evenings, ‘Free and Easy Club’. I’ll drink to that!