By Duncan Wilson

26 August 2016 - 09:27

Young man amid water fountains in Somerset House
'Historic places lend themselves to immersion.' Photo ©

j0e_m, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, explains what motivates us to protect and care for our built heritage.

Our common cultural and natural heritage is held in trust for future generations and needs to be protected from a wide range of threats, from insensitive development to neglect, climate change and even deliberate destruction. This is the challenge of heritage protection. Taken on a global scale, it is daunting. The world is abundant with natural wonders and man-made treasures, and the pressure on its resources, including cultural heritage, grows every year.

But every standing stone, every palace and place of worship, every canyon, cave and coastline is part of a special place, and there is almost always a particular person or community that cares about it. In fact, the real power of heritage is that so many people care very deeply and will go to great lengths to protect it.

The will to destroy is often met by a greater will to protect, care and create. If we can understand and direct this will, we can do more than simply hold our heritage in trust or simply treat it as a collection of museum pieces.

In Britain, we have seen fast social and technological change render some of our greatest buildings obsolete, and this is both a challenge and a massive opportunity. For example, many of our great industrial buildings such as former textile mills are crying out for sensitive reuse. On the other hand, what we have done very successfully in some instances is turn cultural icons of the past to radically different purposes – often the opposite of the ones for which they were built. In many cases, we have opened up previously enclosed spaces, private spaces, and places of privilege, to public use. This has helped millions of people feel that sense of care and belonging. They are now places for cultural engagement and enjoyment. Part of the enjoyment is in the very fact that we ordinary people are finally ‘allowed in’ to places that were once held in trust for a privileged few.

The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, where I worked for nearly ten years, is such an example. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997, during the 1980s and 1990s this incredible set of baroque buildings was home to a nuclear reactor, and surrounded by Ministry of Defence personnel with machine guns. It was also surrounded by trees and tall hedges to keep it from public view. And by the end of the 20th century, the college was simply in the wrong place.

Within a few years of taking down the hedges, we were welcoming two million visitors a year. They came not just to learn about the history of the place, fascinating though it is. They also came for immersive experiences such as skating on a temporary ice rink in Upper Grand Square, surrounded by the buildings of architects Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Experiences like this are extraordinary – people are transported and changed by them. Historic places lend themselves to this immersion and transportation. And this contrast of old and new uses is exciting. It creates a tension that can spark something like the outdoor performances of Greenwich and Docklands International Festival, for which the college was the inspirational setting.

Somerset House – like Greenwich, the site of a Tudor palace – is famed for its magnificent courtyard. But it was, until the turn of the millennium, used as an office building for the Inland Revenue and the Lord Chancellor’s Department, and the courtyard was a tarmac car park for civil servants. It was rather an unhappy place – famously where Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s divorce was announced. It was a place where custody cases were settled – sadly there was even a very large cage around the great South Building staircase to keep desperately unhappy people caught up in custody battles from harming themselves or others. There’s nothing more delightful on a summer evening now than strolling into this other-worldly neoclassical square of London and hearing people laughing at a film or chatting over a glass of wine.

Somerset House
'Somerset House – the site of a Tudor palace – is famed for its magnificent courtyard.' Photo ©

Andrea Kropka, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Our historic environment matters in every town, city and village, and the same principles hold. Historic and iconic buildings give people a sense of place, a sense of ownership, identity and belonging. Cultural events are important for attracting new audiences with cultural heritage. Of course, tourism matters, and protection under the planning system matters, but what really secures the future of our heritage is instilling pride, love and understanding. To do this, we must continually strive to captivate new audiences, work to understand the past and give people a perspective that is surprising, valuable, and stimulates curiosity.

The contrast of old buildings with new uses brings creative tension to our towns and cities. Successful regeneration projects often use history, heritage and historic places as a starting point, and businesses seem to enjoy better growth when they are in older quarters.

Economics aside, history is the grit in the oyster of places across the world – a potential prize to be cherished. If a place challenges you, inspires you, or makes you sit up and think, then you have a good chance of falling in love with it, protecting it, and handing it on to your children in turn to love and protect.

Duncan Wilson will be giving the keynote speech at the International Heritage and Museums Conference in Lahore, Pakistan, in collaboration with the British Council on 1-3 September 2016.

UK organisations can currently apply for grants available through the Cultural Protection Fund to carry out projects in a series of countries.

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