Sustaining Our Heritage – Paul Drury and English Heritage’s Conservation Principles

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing Paul Drury speak on ‘Sustaining Cultural Heritage Values in Changing Environments’ at University College London.

Paul spent a great deal of time talking about the heritage values that people associate with sites.  These, he argued, should form the basis of any management decision about a site and crucially, any conservation measures.  Heritage values, he pointed out, may not be embodied in the material authenticity of a site: in other words, people may not consider a site important for the fact that its surviving fabric is from a particular period but rather for what the whole embodies.  Paul gave the example of the Anderton Boat Lift where rather than preserve the delapidated lift, missing or unusable parts were replicated to restore the lift’s functionality.  Although some of the lift’s historic fabric is gone, the lift as a whole can once more inspire the wonderment for which it was cherished.  In other words, it’s heritage value was sustained.

The use of ‘to sustain’ rather than ‘to conserve’ was very noticeable in Paul’s lecture, and he explained why: ‘to sustain’ is to nurture and to maintain. In a policy document which Paul and his colleague Anna MacPherson prepared for English Heritage they defined the term further:

To sustain embraces both preservation and enhancement to the extent that the values of a place allow.

‘Enhancement’ or ‘to maintain’ are fairly revolutionary concepts in the realm of conservation.  Not only is conservation moving away from the sole consideration of the fabric of things to include and maybe even give greater importance to people’s (intangible) heritage values.  It is also starting to leave behind the former ‘minimal intervention’ approach.  Instead, Paul pointed out, it is realized that greater intervention can actually ‘reveal and reinforce’ heritage values and thus ensure their survival.  In his lecture, Paul also gave a very strong sense of such ‘revelation and reinforcement’ being a part of the present’s contribution to heritage – another concept which is fairly new.  In English Heritage’s Strategy for 2005-2010, this is expressed as people nurturing their historic environment as an integral part of life today.  Rather than attempt to freeze heritage in a past state, it is now recognized that people today add to heritage and that heritage can also change through this interaction.  This is a natural process that ‘sustains’ the heritage values from the past through the present and into the future.  Consequently, Paul’s definition of conservation is ‘the process of managing change’.

It will be interesting to observe what impact the ‘Conservation Principles’ and also English Heritage’s strategy have had so far.  Where conservators let go of the reigns slightly, interpreters may be able to really facilitate that conversation between people and heritage.  I have for a while now defined interpretation as ‘a living social practice’, fully aware that this is somewhat aspirational and philosophic rather than a description of the current state of affairs.  However, Paul’s lecture and these developments within English Heritage have given me a new boost.  Heritage and interpretation are not static.  They are processes that change and evolve, and most importantly, they are about people, not fabric.

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