Let’s give heritage some space

 

A project that I’m working on at the moment had me think again about how we conceptualise ‘heritage’, and how our particular concepts and approaches are fermented by funding processes and dare I say the industry that has evolved around them. The project is what we in the sector in the UK call ‘a Heritage Lottery project’, which indicates not only the main funder (the Heritage Lottery Fund, or short HLF) but also a particular process that their funding programmes set in motion. So for an HLF project you’ll have a team of specialist consultants, including business planners (us, in this case), an architect and their whole support team, an interpretation planner, and an activity planner. It was the activity planner who began to worry that this project didn’t have enough ‘heritage activity’, at least for HLF.

 

The project is a historic pool, claimed to be the oldest of its kind in the UK if not in Europe (we’re talking just over 200 years old). The site is incredibly steep and tight, making space a precious commodity. After one of the most extensive market appraisals that I’ve ever done, we as business planners concluded that there was neither need nor a financially viable basis to create anything other than facilities that support a restored pool operation. We know HLF very well, so we still envisaged interpretation and activties, but both integrated into the wider pool infrastructure with a light touch without building special facilities. We’re satisfied that HLF will be happy. But that’s not actually my point.

 

What made me pause was just how much we’re focused on providing these things – interpretation, activities – when quite possibly they are not needed at all. It’s a pool. It’s an old pool, granted, but it’s still a pool. When I read through comments that stakeholders made previously, I find people’s fond memories of swimming in the pool. Not 200 years ago, but within their lifetime – the 1960s, 70s, before it closed. Quite possibly (they don’t say) there is indeed an awareness of, and a sense of connection to the people that have swum in the pool before them, stretching all the way back to the 19th century. After all, amazingly the infrastructure that’s there has largely remained unchanged –while you swim, you can still imagine it’s the 19th century.

 

But actually, you may not want to. You may just enjoy to be swimming in a really pretty environment.

 

I am convinced that even if we provided not one word of interpretation, and not a single ‘heritage activity’, the pool, once opened, would still be ‘heritage’ to people – and become heritage to others as well. And this may or may not have anything to do with how old the pool is, or the fact that it is considered to be architecturally significant.

 

Here’s the thing: if HLF weren’t involved in this, as long as the building substance is respected (the pool is listed), we probably wouldn’t have this conversation at all. In fact, one of the comparators we looked at (not quite as old, but almost) was restored and redeveloped by a private company. There is no ‘heritage activity’ here, and only the briefest of nods to the site’s history in a few historic and restoration pictures online. And yet it is clear how much people value that pool and what it has become, judging by its popularity.

 

I’m not really making a ‘heritage industry’ critique here, although it pains me to admit that one could. I’m also not suggesting that whatever interpretation and facilitated, non-swimming ‘heritage’ activity is implemented will be anything less than excellent. And it is also true that some of the stakeholders would have built a whole block of buildings just to accommodate a vast historic exhibition and a dedicated education space. So it’s not just ‘us professionals’ that may be adding artificial layers to heritage [1].

 

I think for me this project is really driving home the point about thinking differently about heritage. Heritage is not the building. It’s not what we add on to it to ‘communicate’ it as heritage. It’s also an example of not managing heritage, but managing and providing the infrastructure that allows people to continue to create their heritage: in this case, by swimming in this pool. This was one of the things that really emerged for me from my visitor research: infrastructure was what was important, more so even than any form of what I used to think of and advocate as active facilitation. I’m not sure yet how far one way or the other my thinking will go as I continue to mull this over, but if there were nothing else to this project than the restoration of the pool so people can swim there again, I would feel I’ve done good work as a heritage professional.

 

 

Notes

 

[1] There has been the suggestion that people are so accustomed to the ‘Western’ way of thinking about heritage (experts, need to educate) that they’ve absorbed it too. Not all – there are plenty of case studies from ‘the West’ that show alternative views of heritage.

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6 thoughts on “Let’s give heritage some space

  1. Dear Nicole,
    I love your posts, you actually say the things I also think with the ‘right words’!
    I think that, sometimes correctly interpreting an heritage may lead to take a step back: reduce all the possibilities to the simplest and less intrusive media or recognize that another form of communication techniques work better for the purpose.
    I’m now interested to hear what you came up to! 😀

    1. Thanks, Vanessa! We’re not actually doing the interpretation or the activity planning on this one, but I’m interested too in what those two consultants will come up with.

  2. I read this with interest- it mirrors a project here in Canada I was involved with. It was also an old pool, but happened to be the birthplace of our national parks system. We felt strongly that the best way to honour essence of place was to have people swim there again (which they’d been able to do until quite recently.) Ultimately, due to a combination of logistical factors, we turned it into a bunch of very expensive exhibits about people swimming. (I’m simplifying here.)
    If I’m reading you correctly, the issue is not that there’s something wrong with the heritage industry or the HLF funding process, but rather that this particular place isn’t really a good candidate for it. Maybe your pool isn’t about heritage; it’s about swimming. Looking at it another way: heritage permeates every aspect of our life and our society. We can feel heritage driving down a highway, talking on the phone, getting a hair cut, making a recipe. That doesn’t make those things candidates for HLF funding.
    But we chase the funding because it’s there; we commemorate events and places as a form of make-work or self-justification, and that’s depressing. Perhaps less cynically, we throw everything we can find into the heritage mill because we’re so afraid of losing that heritage in the future. Or, we feel so passionate about commemorating and interpreting heritage that we advance it inappropriately- and there’s no system of checks and balances to encourage us to back off.
    I used to joke at work that if you left your lunch dishes out too long, the historians would declare them level 2 cultural resources.

    1. Hi Don,

      That’s interesting about your project. I’m glad that the pool we’re working on will definitely bring people back to swim. I actually feel that the swimming part *is* the heritage, so in my mind the pool and its restoration is all about heritage. But the questions you pose – the depressing ones – are exactly what’s been going through my mind. And I think you’re right, if the (so-called ‘heritage’) funding is available we (the ‘heritage professionals’ but also others) may be inclined to go overboard, and do things that no-one actually *needs* to enjoy ‘the heritage’. I’m almost glad our pool is on such a ridiculously tight site, because it naturally excludes a lot of development. I shudder to think of all the (unnecessary?) provision that may have been plonked there otherwise. You got me thinking there – what could be a system of checks and balances that we can develop to encourage us to back off, especially as interpreters? One to ponder…
      Thanks for the comment!
      Nicole

  3. Nicole- one exercise I sometimes do as a planner is called the “pre-mortem.” Once you have consensus on the essence of place, you spent time imagining ways of compromising it. IE “We know we will have messed up/compromised this site’s essence and meaning when…” People from different disciplines and industries will define that in different ways, which becomes a springboard for fairly lively discussion.

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