English Heritage has announced a ‘crowd sourcing’ idea, through which they hope to survey the nearly 350,000 Grade II listed buildings in England. Volunteers will be trained, so that they will be able to record the state of repair as (in their words) “a first step to continued engagement in saving local heritage”:
While many might criticise the criteria and expert-led guidelines through which buildings become ‘listed’, I feel that this would miss the point. Although the whole listing process tends to imply a certain sense of sanctity in the notions of ‘heritage-as-built-object’, and often sets in train a stated ambition towards an ideal of absolute ‘preservation’, the numbers of sites involved, together with the nature of the survey suggests a great opportunity for rethinking our relationship with listed buildings.
Instead of expertly-denominated buildings that are somehow ‘filed away’ and ‘stored’ (in the imagination), the process of survey through the activities of thousands of volunteers would seem to provide an impetus of liveliness, which might invoke a more active relationship within and between people and places. Rather than being channelled through the ‘authorised’ motifs of saving stuff “for its own sake”, or “for the nation”, or “for the future”, these activities suggest the potential for heritage to be seen as a more open resource. Rather than acting as a ‘baseline’ that should be adhered to forever, the scale of the survey might allow a sense of on-going engagement and transformation to be recorded.
By English Heritage’s own reckoning, around 4.2% (perhaps up to 15,000) of these listed properties maybe ‘at risk’. This is a sizeable number, and implies that the task of survey might be one of recording a phase of ‘final decay’. It seems appropriate to heed Walter Benjamin’s suggestion that we develop an ability to find a ‘new beauty in what is vanishing’.