Other people’s places on my mind: An empty meadow near Morecambe, a cornfield in Dorset, Taksim Square in Turkey, a villa in Tuscany where my baby Great-Niece tries to stand for the first time.
I’ve worked in heritage for many years and from stately homes to Bake-Off it is my passion, but over the past week I’ve wondered whether Britain’s past is holding us back.
To be clear, I love heritage. I am so proud of our free museums and our education programmes. I researched heritage authenticity for my doctorate and I worked in historic city management. I’m a fan of bonnet dramas, seafaring epics, Victoriana, Alexander McQueen exhibitions, Lucy Worsley/Amanda Vickery documentaries, ruins, gardens, Bronte or Austen adaptations, Brideshead, Butter Mintoes, Outlander, anything Celtic or involving the word barouche. One of my best friends is a re-enactor.
Yesterday I gave a presentation on how, in the light of leaving the EU, I feel as if the word heritage has negative connotations. This is a pivotal time for our sense of place and, like the Talking Head’s song Once in a Lifetime we need to ask: How did we get here?
There’s a correlation between modernity and nostalgia. After the Second World War, the UK modernised through necessity, refashioning bombed sites in new, cheaper concrete propelled by the Festival of Britain’s future-facing, Skylon-scraping optimism. A rescue archaeology movement fought to prevent new, wide, High Streets potentially demolishing chunks of historic cities such as Canterbury. This was grassroots rescue protest, buildings anthropomorphised in their plight and saved. The stark modernity of the sixties refreshed styles further, mini-skirts cocking a snook at the bowler-hatted Establishment until the nostalgic 70’s papered over Op Art with Laura Ashley cod-Morris prints. Folk/Prog noodles were then sliced and diced by punk and electronica. In the Eighties, All Creatures Great and Small pullovers and Brideshead cricket jumpers worn draped round the shoulders were replaced by the fresh sherbet of sorbet pastel fashion, the colour of Miami Vice beachfront homes, which were succeeded by the new minimalist matte black. I came home after living in America and British popular culture was gloriously, unexpectedly French: Betty Blue, Gitanes, wine, food, even the Style Council had gone bleu. These movements overlapped, jostled and blew raspberries at each other. From flappers onward, we required the shakeup of continuous reinvention during the Twentieth Century.
In the 80’s and early 90’s academics such as Hewison and Huxtable debated our focus on the heritage “industry”, a pejorative term. Britain was moving from production to consumption and our service economy had grown. Some academics critiqued ‘Heritage Theme Parks,’ detecting a whiff of entrepreneurship in museums, ace caffs in the basement out of step with a tradition of preservation-conservation (MacDonald and Alsford, 1995; Huxtable, 1997; Hewison, 1987; Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, 1998; Swarbrooke 2000). Lowenthal, author of The Past Is Another Country described the ubiquitous commoditisation of culture in the sentiment ‘…everything the government calls heritage is holy’ or in the words of a disgruntled New Englander ‘no matter what comes up in the town, someone fastens the word heritage to it’. The Royal Opera House (where I worked from from 1988-1998) was superheated by the contradictory (but not mutually exclusive) forces of accessibility and exclusivity. Accessibility, for example those events supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, earned our public subsidy, but elitism’s perfume of exclusivity attracted and quietly closed doors behind the patrons on which our development and innovation depended.
Modern heritage. Brit pop. Brit art. Sensation. The age of recreation. Art got gritty, Millennium buildings sprang up as proud, white cubes, bright new veneers on a yellowed smile. Canterbury’s original Pilgrim’s inns were repurposed as cafes, their tradition of hostelry maintained and, in a stroke of irony, one became a Swatch shop, time visibly ticking away in the window. As globalisation levelled, gentrification displaced character and we strove to accentuate local distinctiveness. We eradicated true, heritage-rich Bohemias (too poor, too real, too dirty, too risky) and created what Lloyd called NeoBohemias, reinventing and commodifying our cultural capital, from blue plaques to food, in order to differentiate places. Teaching heritage management to students, the conversation about British theme parks was old fashioned, redundant in a postmodern world, where high and low art were enmeshed and repackaged as fantasy and opera; shopping and baking were equal, all was what the late John Urry termed ‘edutainment’.
In the noughties and beyond, heritage interpretation focused on pluralisation (many voices), diversifying beyond the tales of Dead White Dudes (with the exception of Churchill). The story of the Abbey is told by both Bates and Lady Grantham #justgoingupstairstotakeoffmyhet. Less stately, unseemly, more sheer pastness, listening to hitherto silenced voices. History changes with us. Today Rome is CGI-shaped. It is real and, as as we emerge from the cinema, we are not. The simulacrum is now engrained, but as the hipster movement shows, the more modern it gets, the more we want to put a doily on it.
Tapping into the experience economy we stage weddings, corporate events, theatre and creative interventions at heritage sites which lend the scene a backdrop of beauty, grandeur and taste. Festivalisation and constantly revolving anniversaries #gladioliholiday! from tall ships to air shows, elevate and enshrine, (as MacCannell argued of tourism in the 70’s) and memorialisation feeds the beast of 24-hour Internet content and brings us together. Commemorations can be uplifting and forgiving, but they can also exclude, as a Dutch friend reminded me.
And so it goes. The sinisterly-named Transformation Agenda was evoked for austerity four years ago and museums became Trusts, formed Foundations, merged budgets with the Arts, and relied on volunteering as public funding was withdrawn. English Heritage split, became a commercial charity. To qualify for subsidy, heritage is equated with wellbeing, ownership, inclusion, participation, engagement. Escape the machines and do something physical which will make you feel less confused, more connected, authentic, happy. Volunteering at heritage sites may boost our health and solve the staffing shortages, but it is also symptomatic of our need to return to our roots. As the world tangles, we turn inward to micro-levels of food, geneology and body obsession, hipster and maker culture, rediscovering baking and Morris-dancing our way towards the ever-elusive chimera of authenticity. We eat organically, while our lives are less organic, increasingly remote from ourselves, where the intermediaries have intermediaries. But do we actually need to put down these particular (organically pickled on the allotment) roots in a globalised society, if it means we get stuck?
So, to quote the Talking Heads: Am I right? Am I wrong? I don’t know. This is a flawed, incomplete discussion of a complex subject which I’ve explored in my thesis and am writing up for a book about authenticity. Theme Park England has been thoroughly imagined by Julian Barnes in England England and Shannon Hale in Austenland. But I would suggest that it’s time to revisit the ideas of the academics who questioned the commoditisation of heritage. We rely on the history business, we reflect the myth of being British back to our tourists and investors, placemaking for the Other, leaving our anachronistic red phone boxes in place, still calling the past. But Theme Park Britain fuels our identify and is not as benign as it seems when it is appropriated by politics. As a friend said of recent events: “I blame bunting!”That’s the clean version anyway.
In our postmodern culture more is more. We can have it all, a pastiche of modern and historical references, pseudo history. Pastiche, for me, is the best bit, it gives us the great architecture of Robert Graves, the Black Eyed Peas Killing me Softly and modern fables referencing greek myths like Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. Old as new, a building with the illusion of a brick ribbon tied on it, art in the city, style in the country. But is our focus on heritage commoditisation in need of an upgrade? Punk and the 60’s may now seem like blips on a flatlined heart monitor of conventionality, but at least they chucked out the chintz and looked to the future.
Yesterday, at work, a colleague spoke about how, in some cultures, the future is said to be behind us, because we can’t see it. The past is before us.There is so much wonder in heritage, the chill of the buildings and collections which have witnessed events and been touched by history. So much pleasure tracing and retracing backwards to arrive at recognition. I will always do this. Our heritage can’t be put back into its box, because the box is now glass and attached to a museum. It is transparent. The past is our country. We are here and there.
[Since writing this post, we’ve all heard that Love Productions was moving Bake Off to Channel 4. We survived.