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?

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