Preserving the heritage of heritage: heritage ruins, or ruined heritage?

In his book ‘Heritage: Critical Approaches’ (2013), Rodney Harrison calls for society to take more consideration of how we can de-commission ‘heritage’. Arguing that ‘we live in a world in which heritage is ubiquitous’ Harrison is concerned with all the piling up of heterogeneous items, traces and practices of the past in the present. Connecting this to the contemporary value systems that govern conservation agendas, he suggests that we are at risk of being ‘overwhelmed by memory’. This is very dramatic language, but perhaps we do need to think about how we can ‘prune’ some elements of heritage? There is, perhaps, too much of it about – but how should we make decisions?

This issue can be approached from at least two perspectives: First, as Harrison himself notes, we should recognise that (drawing on Mark Augé) forgetting is a necessary form of cultural production. So that while we might place a lot of emphasis on remembering and memorialising events and phenomena that have ‘social value’, we should not necessarily be sad or worry about to forgetting things that are ‘irrelevant’. In other words, we need to think sustainably and sensibly about the pasts we produce in the present for the future. Of course, this decision-making process should not be focussed on preserving and protecting ‘the best examples’, but by recognising and thinking about issues of power and equality. And this leads me to consider the second approach towards deciding what sort of heritage to maintain and what to let go – allowing ‘the market’ to decide.

Allowing ‘the market’ to decide what is preserved and protected seems to be an increasingly common method of dealing with the issue; and one which is an honest reflection of the Neoliberal world that we live in, whether you agree with the outcome or not.

There are many heritage centres and museums that are cutting their work force, opening hours and attractions, and are increasingly reliant on voluntary labour. Having gone through a period of ‘expansion’, as Heritage Lottery Funds, EU monies and other State-led grants allowed for a relatively positive environment for the celebration and marking of all sorts of heritage, we are now in an era of austerity.

As ‘austerity’ kicks in, the ‘market-led’ approach to preservation decisions is something that is increasingly clear. Optimistic visitor projections have come back to haunt several sites, leading to an increasing category of ‘ex-heritage sites’, representative of a sort of ‘heritage of austerity’; the heritage of decaying heritage; obsolete, due to market pressures. This is certainly something that crossed my mind last week when I visited the Minions Mine Heritage Centre, in the small village on Minions, high up on Bodmin Moor.

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Although the website reported that it should be open at 10am, the site was boarded up and clearly closed when we visited. A plaque on the wall celebrated the building of the original mine engine house in 1881 (at a time when the Cornish mining industry was already in decline); and its refurbishment in 1991, with a grant from the Rural Development Commission. I checked up on further websites when I got home, however, and found that the closure is only temporary – brought on by the need to replace some rotten lintels, it should be open by the Summer.

While this heritage centre was not permanently closed, however, the situation still turns our attention towards the wider issue of how to deal with the ‘heritage of heritage’: the recognition that heritage-related decisions, processes and practices, themselves, have a recognisable ‘heritage’.

In 1997, The Archaeolink Prehistory Park at Oyne, in Aberdeenshire, was hailed as a flagship attraction. Aberdeenshire Council was forced to take control of the prehistory park in 2005 after spending £1.5 million of taxpayers’ money in a bid to keep the centre afloat as its visitor numbers, originally projected at 100,000 a year, plunged to just over 19,000. The park finally closed its doors in February, 2011. (See article in the Scotsman for details: http://www.scotsman.com/news/scotland/top-stories/aberdeenshire-council-to-pull-plug-on-archaeolink-1-2948032). There are a few blog sites that have recorded the slow demise of this heritage theme park: for instance, see the ‘Heritagelandscapecreativity’ blog for August 2013, which has some excellent photos: (https://heritagelandscapecreativity.wordpress.com/tag/archaeolink-prehistory-park/).

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In many ways, this now corresponds to an exploration of the ‘heritage’ of the early 21st century ‘heritage industry’; one that reflects both the choices and funding regimes that permitted the park to open in the late 1990s, as well as the political-economic context that faces such heritage sites today. It strikes me that this ‘heritage of austerity’ is not something that should be swept under the carpet, in an attempt to air-brush out the political decisions that are being made about what is deemed fundable. And it should also be challenged, in a manner that goes beyond the slightly ironic – slightly dramatic realms of ‘urban exploration’ at such sites. Once more, we must be prompted to look towards issues of power and equality – in how sites get funded; what sorts of heritage get chosen to be preserved in a state of ‘managed obsolescence’ as a ‘heritage-ruin’ – or abandoned to become ‘ruined heritage’ of an obsolete past.

Flodden Field Heritage: Nations, Pacifism, and Pacifist Aggressive Behaviour on the Borderlands

As part of the Past-Place project, I visited Northumbria a few weeks ago, staying on the English side of the River Tweed, near Coldstream. This is “1513 Country”, through which buildings, villages, and entire landscapes are ‘time-tagged’ according to the date of the Battle of Flodden Field, for which 2013 marked a 500th anniversary.

2014 has seen a good deal of attention directed at the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn – Scotland’s most famous victory – with a £10million refurbished visitor centre being opened by Alex Salmond in April. The 500th anniversary of Scotland’s most famous defeat, in which King James IV and many of his leading nobles lost their lives, has not received such a high profile.

The Battlefield site lies on the English side of the border, and forms the centre piece in the recently established multi-site Flodden 1513 Ecomuseum. Initially developed in France to protect vulnerable rural communities, the ecomuseum concept has become increasingly popular in recent years, providing a means through which to channel a variety of community-led initiatives and encourage multi-agency co-operation in rural areas. The resulting ‘museum’ is a slightly ambiguous mix – of several stories and interpretations being loosely encapsulated under a single ‘time-tagged’ umbrella of “1513” – a strangely static way of dealing with temporality. Under this umbrella, however, there are several narratives:

At nearby Etal Castle, there is a permanent display by English Heritage. Essentially, this is a story of two armies confronting one and other on the battlefield, with individual stories mostly taking a back seat amidst the over-arching ‘battle of nations’. The imaginatively drawn battle scenes ‘helpfully’ depict soldiers bearing either the red cross of England, or the blue saltires of Scotland, so it is easy to tell who is who!

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At the nearby Flodden Peace Centre, however, there is a vigorous attempt to use the Flodden Battlefield story as a prompt for contemporary practices of peace and reconciliation. A colour coded garden leads the visitor through moments of ‘clash’, ‘loss and desolation’, and towards ‘dialogue’, renewal and reflection.

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The red garden: “There is a time for confrontation. Things must be said. This is a rant space”

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The place of reflection: “A quiet seat for prayer and reflection”

The centrepiece of the Flodden Peace Centre Garden is the Peace Plough, by artist, Nick Watton Drew: “barbed wire sprouting vice leaves symbolises the end of wars and the end of all barbaric fences of imprisonment and separation”

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Meanwhile, at the actual Flodden Battlefield site, the Remembering Flodden Project has established ‘The World’s Smallest Visitor Centre’ in an old BT Phone Box:

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In many ways following the example of the Flodden Peace Centre, rather than seeking to glorify victory in a triumphalist manner, the actual battlefield site, trail and Telephone Box-cum-Visitor Centre tries to convey the battle as one of both ‘victory and despair’, encouraging visitors to reflect on the lives of ordinary people who were caught up in the battle, and prompting notions of reconciliation.

In many ways, this is a laudable attempt to ‘do battlefields differently’ – conveying them not as victorious scenes set in aspic to be celebrated through ritual commemoration, but as active and present-centred touchstones through which to think about the nature of conflict. However, I do feel that the pacifist tone can become a little over-wrought, particularly in some of the petty sniping at the Bannockburn juggernaut. To quote the Remembering Flodden Project leaflet: “To mark the 700th anniversary of the famous battle in 2014, Bannockburn now boasts a multi-million pound visitor centre. We were not so fortunate, but the disused phone box was purchased from BT for £1 and now helps to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden”

In some ways, the hard sell to visitors that they should reflect on ‘peace’ rather than ‘war’ comes across as a form of ‘pacifist aggressive behaviour’ – that debate might be closed down through a command towards only peaceful reflection. Perhaps this might be seen as another ‘casualty’ of the time-tagging paradigm: that if everything is channelled through the prism of “1513”, then practices of perceived injustice and dynamic power relations are over-looked.

I really liked the Remembering Flodden material, but there is sometimes a fine line between seeing a message of peace as being a prompt for present-centred reflection, and using a ‘message of peace’ in a slightly triumphalist ‘holier-than-thou’ manner. And anyway: sometimes it is good to scratch at scabs!