whose heritage?

terry_cavner_tyne_bridge_470x297I’ve been back in Newcastle for a few weeks, whilst i sort out my London living and working arrangements.  I’m immensely proud of where i come from, and it is always i fantastic feeling crossing over the Tyne bridge, i know I’m home. To me the Tyne is a major part of my heritage. However I watched a rather thought provoking programme this week called saving Britain’s past. This particular episode was about Covent Garden market.  The neighbourhood surrounding Covent Garden, the ones who lived, worked and breathed Covent Garden had a fight on their hands.  The government in the 70s had scheduled the Market to be rehoused and Covent Garden to be demolished. A shocking tale when you think about how iconic Covent Garden is to London now, and how many thousands of tourists go to visit it every day. The outcome of the fight, unsurprisingly, was that the locals saved Covent Garden. But the irony is that it’s not their Covent Garden anymore. They feel excluded, and that loving sense of community that was once thriving, no longer exists. There is no camaraderie there, what remains is sadness.

Today’s Covent Garden is not their heritage, it’s not what they fought so hard to save, yet it is ‘our’ heritage, Britain’s heritage, part of Britain’s past. But is that the point? By saving the building, yes the building is saved, but what about the people, the way of life, the community? Is that not the heritage that we should be trying to save? Is it just one or the other?   The programme shows how passionately the local community fought for its right to survive and to save its historic buildings, but who now regard their triumph as at best a Pyrrhic Victory.  Would it have been any better if they had just let the developers demolish the site?

It made me think long and hard about what heritage means, and to whom. Its an interesting concept.   ‘Heritage’ normally refers to objects, buildings or places associated with past public and private memories and traditions. But really do Heritage objects represent things we pay attention to because they’re still meaningful to us, not always because they tell us about the past but because we use them to tell stories about ourselves.   So does heritage actually have anything to do with the past? Or is it simply one way we use to make meaning about our lives?

This also links back to Geevor, the ex miners fought long and hard to save Geevor from the scrap man and lovingly turned into into a small scale heritage centre. Then the museum pros came on board, and used the line of ‘protecting their heritage’ to turn Geevor into a full functioning museum.  But who was that for? Was it for the ex miners? Or was it for the 40 thousand tourists who came this year? Who’s heritage is being preserved?

Another example is something i read in the Evening Chronicle, the local newspaper in Newcastle about  The Rising Sun Country Park, in North Tyneside. 40yrs ago it was a working pit which at one time employed 1700 coal miners. Its now a park enjoyed by families, dog walkers and cyclists.  A history walk was organised by the Friends of the Rising Sun Country Park, to give walkers a chance to learn more about the regions mining heritage.  All well and good, a valiant attempt. However, the ex miners who had been invited to speak, didn’t turn up. In the end the walk was saved by a chap attending the walk who’s father had worked at the colliery.  What’s interesting is that the miners did not turn up for the event. Why not? To be honest im not really surprised. I doubt i would want to go to the place where i had worked for most of my life, to be reminded that the once thriving industry, no longer exists, and is now a vast expanse of grass lands for people to walk their dogs.  Again it comes down to an interpretation of heritage. The Friends of the park, thought they were helping preserve the heritage of the miners, but really were they just looking for validation that turning an ex colliery into a park was the right thing to do, and not surprisingly the miners weren’t going to support that.  This is just my interpretation of events however (I don’t know all the facts, only what was reported in the newspaper) but i have had a fair share of experience working with miners, and they are very complicated and fiercely proud people. If the idea for a heritage walk didn’t come from within the mining community, then it is unlikely to be supported. Again this comes down to peoples interpretation of heritage. Perhaps heritage isn’t about the past; perhaps It is about meaning making in peoples lives and if its no longer relevant to peoples lives then it is no longer heritage? Hmm….

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