Heritage science and the public sector

Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland, Public Domain

Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland, Public Domain

By Scott Allan Orr

Heritage science is used to not fitting in.

Straddling a vaulted archway between scientific research and cultural preservation, management, and communication, it has often struggled to eke out it’s position in the context of economic and political shifts. Semantics aside, anything that is self-defined as inter-, trans-, and cross-disciplinary without a safe haven of its own risks homelessness in times of uncertainty. This is inextricably linked to finding financial and institutional support. Decision makers love putting things in boxes, and yet heritage science can sometimes seem to tick too many boxes for practical results.

Heritage, as a wider field, has seen its share of uncertainty regarding its operational procedures.

Thurley purports the birth of nineteenth century heritage site tourism was fostered by the rising middle-classes’ access to the rail network (2013), but I argue there was more likely an ongoing symbiosis. In many of these cases, aristocratic landowners had inherited archaeological and built heritage, and tolerated visitors who were interested in exploring ruins and castles.

Some owners eventually charged entry fees, but these were rarely underpinned by capitalist motivations. In cases where visitors were required to pay for access to the site, the financial barrier was put in place to limit the overwhelming numbers showing up. Increasing access to personal motor vehicles only exacerbated these problems. Often, owners used the collected funds solely for site upkeep and maintenance, donating the dividends to charities of their choosing.

The rapid (and often verging on aggressive) site acquisition undertaken by the Office of Works Ancient Monuments Department in the first half of the twentieth century was necessitated by owners’ inabilities to meet the preservation and access demands put in place by ‘site listing’ legislation. This placed both the initial conservation and regular operation of sites clearly within the remit of the public sector.

The sites acquired during this time form most of the modern-day collections of English Heritage, Historic Scotland, and Cadw, two of which are undergoing administrative restructuring in 2015. Detaching the duties of property management from wider planning and protection responsibilities motivates that of the first.

The government believes that, given an £80m seed investment, English Heritage will, in time, become a financially independent body. Many examples exist of private owners of large properties, albeit not on the same scale as English Heritage. However, it is imperative to remember that most of these properties have a primary function to fulfil, which has its own implications for finances.

Heritage science is sustained by partnerships between parties that maintain heritage and those that are interested in applying and understanding fundamental principles to them. English Heritage (pre-divorce) represents an institution in which this kind of work was done under one roof, facilitating cooperation and agreements. Scientific research falls under the remit of this new—not so creatively-titled—body that will come into existence on April 1: Historic England.

Separating these two activities could have any number of detrimental effects on research effort and quality: a) increased administrative burdens, and b) limited access to knowledge and skills, and c) decreased visibility of heritage science research in the built environment.

There is a diverse tapestry of research participants in heritage science in the UK. There are the aforementioned public sector bodies devoted to advice and wider heritage planning. There are higher education institutes, whose interests lie somewhere between practical impacts and knowledge inquiry. These divisions are complicated by public and private institutions eligible for independent research organisation status, giving them access to research council funding, a possibility that should not be underwritten. Many other countries (including members of the Commonwealth!) restrict research council funding to HEIs, requiring other institutions to seek alternative sources or rely on partnerships.

And yet, there is a shift towards the privatisation of heritage, and (more specifically) heritage science.

Opinions of this model’s effectiveness are constantly changing. For instance:

Scientific investigation to be effective, must, if possible, be carried to some finality and when, as in stone decay, the problems involve fundamental research, not only into the physics and chemistry of materials but also the accidental causes such as smoke pollution, then it is only to be expected that much time and expenditure will be required. One of the difficulties in the past has been that the work has been undertaken by individual investigators working alone with inadequate financial support. An inquiry such as this can only be undertaken by a Government department or by a firm with considerable financial resources at its disposal. Since the return, however large to the community, will be relatively small to the individual, a Government department is practically the only body that can deal with it and make the information obtained available to all those interested in the subject.

     – R. E. Stradling

Director of Building Research, Building Research Station

(preferatory note to Schaffer, 1932)

Interestingly, the Building Research Establishment Stradling wrote on behalf of was privatised by the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions in 1997. It seems that his vision of and belief in a public sector research institute for the built environment was short-lived.

One of the challenges for heritage science is that it is “perceived as neither science nor an art” (Brinkley et al, 2010, p. 35). Conversely, heritage science benefits from public funding doled out in the name of humanities and sciences.

Research council support for heritage science is evident: the jointly funded AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage Programme emphasised the inter-disciplinary aspect of the field. More recently, University College London, the University of Oxford, and the University of Brighton were awarded funding for a Central for Doctoral Training CDT in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage, and Archaeology (SEAHA). This programme has the capacity (and aim) to train 60 doctoral students over the next 8 years in heritage science projects.

And yet, active heritage scientists aren’t necessarily overjoyed. After the most recent IIC AGM, a panel discussion addressed ‘The Future of Heritage Science’. An overarching theme apparent in the thoughts and words of many attendees was the uncertain necessity of such a quantity of highly qualified researchers in what can, at times, feel like an already saturated field.

Two strong opinions emerged: these researchers will progress into careers unrelated to heritage, or they will enter into careers in the private sector. These solutions summarise some of the issues underlying heritage science’s identity crisis. How can a field that has feet firmly planted in research and public sector funding claim that its future is undeniably to be found in the privatisation of heritage?

How can a field (that some still refute is a separate entity deserving to be considered on parity as such) attempting to establish a permanent place in the scientific landscape be so transparent about the temporarity and constant flux of its researchers?

There’s a lot to be said for the longevity of social capitalism and heritage, but heritage science is currently finds itself at a multi-disciplinary crossroads. More concerning that a disciplinary identity crisis is the current state of flux it finds itself stuck between the private and public sectors.

I am an unashamed fan of intermingling of sectors. I support a slightly competitive nature in any field, and can easily accept the benefits of the development of private stakeholders interest and involvement in heritage science.

And yet, I firmly believe that heritage and heritage science are of paramount importance to a society. While there is a balance to be found in a teetering world of partnerships and inter/cross/trans-disciplinary efforts, there is something incredibly comforting about public sector institutions providing a social ‘safety net’ for heritage and heritage science.

Posterity and sustainability depend on it.

Material referenced

Brinkley, I., Clayton, N., Levy, C., Morris, K., and Wright, J. (2010), Heritage in the 2020 Knowledge Economy: a report for the Heritage Lottery Fund. Produced by the work foundation, available at: http://www.hlf.org.uk/heritage-and-2020-knowledge-economy

Thurley, S. (2013). Men from the Ministry: how Britain saved it’s heritage. Yale University Press; New Haven, CT, London, UK.

Schaffer, R. J. (1932). The Weathering of Natural Building Stones. Building Research Establishment.

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