After 40 years a decision has finally been taken to construct a tunnel to carry the A303 under Stonehenge. I am in two minds. Yes, it will ease congestion and improve the views. But, the work to create the tunnel will do permanent, irreversible, harm to the surrounding landscape. One archaeologist estimates that around half a million artefacts could be lost as a result. UNESCO may also take a dim view of the proposal and withdraw World Heritage Status from the site.
Sad news today that the Seiyun Palace in the Hadhramaut, Yemen, one of the largest mud-brick buildings in the world, is at risk of collapse. Heavy rains in August severely damaged the palace and a number of other buildings. The seven-storey palace, finished in the 1920s, was the seat of the Sultan of Kathiri, an ally of the British who controlled the protectorate of Aden at that time. It became a museum and tourist attraction in the 1980s and I was lucky enough to visit it on my tour of the Yemen in the late 1990s.
The mud-brick buildings, especially the wind-towers, are an incredible and beautiful feature of the Yemen, but I fear for their long-term survival. The ongoing conflict between Yemen’s Saudi-backed government, Houti rebels supported by Iran and separatists in the south mean that aid agencies struggle to help the populace whilst the cultural heritage of the country suffers not only from lack of maintenance but also from looting and pillaging.
It is a sad indictment of our times that there has to be a Heritage At Risk Register. Historic England battles valiantly to save listed buildings and its notable successes have included Wilton’s Music Hall, London, Liverpool’s former Royal Insurance Building and Kelham Island Conservation Area in Sheffield. In the last year, 181 sites were removed from the register thanks to restoration and renovation projects funded by grants from Historic England totalling £8.96m. These include Newington Green Meeting House in Hackney, St Mary’s Church in Guildford and Cadbury Castle in Somerset.
Sadly, these success stories are counterbalanced by the addition this year of 216 sites to the register, including the Ragged School Museum in Tower Hamlets and Madeira Terrace in Brighton. This year’s pandemic will, no doubt, lead to an even greater swelling of numbers of locations on the list, as resources become even more straitened for everyone.
You can check out sites near to you on the Historic England website and maybe see what you can do to help? https://historicengland.org.uk/advice/heritage-at-risk/search-register/
I was appalled to hear that the National Trust plans to ‘dial down’ its role as a cultural institution and focus on the open spaces in its portfolio instead, claiming that the Covid pandemic has merely accelerated an already difficult situation. Even though the Trust has £1.3 billion in reserves, it proposes to keep only 20 of its 500+ historic homes and castles open to the public, to put its collections into storage and to make properties available to people who are prepared to pay more for ‘specialised experiences’. Furthermore, it plans to make 1,200 redundancies, which would include dozens of its specialist curators in areas such as textiles, furniture and libraries, as well as conservation. As Bendor Grosvenor, the art historian, observes, ‘the Trust’s senior management have been making a mess of their historic properties for some time, dumbing down presentation and moving away from knowledge and expertise’, adding that it was reckless to abandon expertise built up over generations as ‘once gone, it will be impossible to retrieve’. The Trust has been accused in the past of ‘Disneyfying’ its properties and this latest news will do nothing to dispel alarm. The running of the properties should be handed to an organisation willing to run them according to the founding principles of the Trust. In the meantime I, and probably many others, will not be renewing my membership.
DCMS’s announcement of the government rescue package of £1.57 billion for arts and heritage was received with cautious optimism. There was mention of boosting employment prospects for both permanent staff and freelancers with specific funding for projects that had been mothballed due to Covid, but there is still concern that money will not reach quickly enough areas where it is needed most. With grants available from £50,000 up to £3 million, distribution of funds in the GLAM sector has fallen to Arts Council England, Historic England and National Heritage Lottery Fund. Applications are open for the first phase of grants but, whilst eligibility is wide, the window is short.
More details here: https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/funding/culture-recovery-fund-grants#section-1
So, the government has announced its £1.57 billion rescue package for heritage and the arts, but the Culture Minister, Caroline Dinenage, said yesterday that the grants will not be paid until later in the summer and that they would be used to protect “crown jewels” and “cultural anchors” in the regions. Why late summer and not now? That will come far too late for some. And what exactly are the “crown jewels” and “cultural anchors”? Doubtless the crown jewels will turn out to be the big attractions in London, such as the theatres and national museums, taking the lion’s share of the pot to the detriment of many small local museums and theatres.
Back in 2018 I wrote about the 12-week old Weimaraner puppy that had joined Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ Protective Services Team. Riley’s job is to sniff out bugs that can damage textiles in museum collections and, thereby, prevent an infestation taking hold.
I’m delighted to announce that an extended version of my post about Riley has been published on the Sniffing the Past blog. This site, edited by one of my doctoral supervisors, Chris Pearson, presents reflections about dogs in history and is well worth a read. I also write about dogs being trained to sniff out stolen historic artefacts and trafficked antiquities. Hats off to our canine companions who are starting to play a key role in the preservation of our culture and heritage.
The impact of the Coronavirus on the heritage sector has hit close to home this week with the sad news that Fishbourne Palace may have to close. Fishbourne, situated just outside Chichester, is a Roman villa on a monumental scale that was comprised of four large residential wings around a courtyard garden. It is the largest residential building from the Roman period found in Britain. The outline of the walls, together with many stunning and elaborate mosaics, survives. It was built around 70AD by Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus, king of the Regni, who was granted Roman citizenship and became fully assimilated into the Roman way of life. The site also houses the archaeological collections for Chichester District and serves as an important hub for academic research and both school-age and adult education, because it is a key site in explaining how the newly conquered province of Britain came to be absorbed culturally into the Roman empire.
Fishbourne is one of eight sites owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society (SAS), also known as Sussex Past, that have all been affected by the loss of visitors. SAS says that all its sites are threatened with closure due to a shortfall of £1 million in lost income. Next year marks the 175th anniversary of the founding of SAS and an appeal has been launched, supported by the historian, Tom Holland. Let’s hope it makes it to this momentous milestone.
Renewed calls to take down public monuments celebrating people and events now considered offensive have become a key part of anti-racism protests taking place around the world, but the removal of statues of slave traders is sparking concerns that important lessons from history might be swept under the carpet. Simplistic expressions of mob justice do no good and only serve to further polarise opinion, but we should avoid any knee-jerk reactions. Each statue will have to be reviewed independently because the backgrounds and contexts are not the same. Edward Colston, for example, whose statue was pulled down, was a Victorian re-invention. His statue was erected in Bristol 170 years after his death, representing the economic, social and political perspectives of the businessmen of the city at that time. There have been calls for the removal of Nelson in Trafalgar Square, because he was opposed to the abolition of slavery, yet this is one of the few monuments to portray black seamen, many of whom served in Nelson’s navy.
The measured response of Sir Geoff Palmer, an emeritus professor of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and Scotland's first black professor, is one that many could heed. He does not support removing statues relating to slavery, believing that they are part of black history and stresses the importance of facing up to the past and better educating the public about it. He has been a key participant in the proposal to amend a plaque on a controversial monument of Scottish politician Henry Dundas to explain that he was "instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade". Palmer told BBC Scotland that the new plaque would give the public the opportunity to see and "actually read the evil that this man has done. If we take the statue down, this will not be known". He said that adding clarifications to these monuments, rather than pulling them down altogether, would avoid erasing history: “My view is you remove the evidence, you remove the deed”.
How we view the past changes from generation to generation, with each viewing its past differently. History is a continuing conversation with and about the past. Looking again means re-evaluating, but re-evaluation is not just the process of knocking the great off their perches, but recognising the value of those who have been overlooked. As retired bishop, Richard Harries, put it on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme’s “Thought for the day” slot (12 June): “If history is a continuing re-evaluation of the past, then perhaps the full story can only be told when mankind no longer exists”. That’s a very long way off...
Business secretary Alok Sharma has confirmed that shops, department stores and shopping centres – all indoor spaces with limited room for people to roam – can reopen from Monday 15 June, “provided they put in place the necessary steps to keep their workers and customers safe”. After much public pressure, zoos and safari parks have now been given the green light to welcome visitors. This is great news, as these sites have been living on their nerves while awaiting news about when they can bring essential funds back into their businesses, but the same devastating experience has affected many museums and heritage sites too. With open-air visitor attractions like zoos and indoor retail units deemed safe, why not museums? Just one example of the disconnect in the government’s stance is evident at Covent Garden, where a raft of shops will be reopening on Monday while their neighbour, London Transport Museum, will remain shut. A lack of joined-up thinking or a lack of care and understanding for our culture and heritage?
My thoughts, views and musings about what's happening in the world of archives and records management, information and governance, heritage and culture