Much work is undertaken these days to maintain, repair and restore heritage sites, locations and buildings. Such work often causes debate, in particular related to how much work should be done, to what, and why. A recent project to renovate London’s Alexandra Palace produced much controversy and discussion about the nature of the proposed work and its purpose. It strikes me that in any work undertaken upon heritage sites and buildings, the key questions should of course focus on what we should do to such places in order to keep them for the future, but also very importantly, on how to make them relevant to today’s users and visitors.
Before I examine some examples, a few definitions. For the purposes of this blog post I am going to talk about three processes that can be applied to heritage sites – restoration, preservation, and recreation. There are a range of other terms that are used to cover similar ground, but to keep things simple I am going to use these three.
Restoration is essentially about taking something back to a former condition, such that it has an authentic appearance appropriate to the chosen period.
Preservation is about stopping an object, place, building etc. from deterioration or destruction, and preventing it from being altered or changed. These days this is often linked to the protection of architecture or the built environment. The key difference to restoration is that it is not the final appearance of the object, place or building that governs the process, but rather it is the retention of as much of the original fabric as possible, with minimal changes, that guides the final outcome.
Finally recreation is about replacing previously destroyed or removed objects, perhaps with a replica, or recreating fundamentally altered environments or settings, in order aid understanding.
Let me look at some examples. The first is the American Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg which has undergone a programme of what has been termed rehabilitation. A look at the programme highlights that it includes elements of all the above categories. Restoration works has seen the removal of lots of 20th century intrusions such as buildings and car parks, as well as non-period vegetation that had encroached on the battlefield since the battle. Recreation sees the replanting of vegetation appropriate to the period, and alongside, preservation work has ensured that those authentic elements of the battlefield remain in place.
The underlying purpose of this project has been to:
‘…restore the Gettysburg Battlefield’s historic integrity, to enhance visitors’ understanding of and appreciation for what happened here, and to help create a sustainable environment by improving wetlands, water quality and wildlife habitat…’.
To guide what was required to make the battlefield more understandable, an analytical process called KOCOA has been used. This means:
Key Terrain includes those areas that were seized, retained or controlled in battle.
Observation includes signal stations and fields of fire.
Cover and Concealment includes stone walls, woods, ridges and other features offering visual protection.
Obstacles include fences, buildings and field fortifications that affected military movement.
Avenues of Approach are the roads, farm lanes and open fields that led to the enemy.
By identifying these important locations on the battlefield the necessary action could then be taken to ensure the landscape presented to visitors was increasingly returned to, as near as possible, that present during the battle. This allows the visitor to understand the all important impact of the terrain on the conduct of the battle and to ‘feel’ the battlefield. The images below are just one example of where this work has been completed.
Gettysburg is not the only American Civil War battlefield going through this process and very recently similar plans have been implemented at the battlefield of Franklin (30 November 1864).
Another location that has been through a similar process in recent years, and one close to my heart, is Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England. The location of the Government Code and Cypher School in the Second World War, Bletchley Park produced vital intelligence, the value of which had a profound impact on the conduct of the Second World War.
The site has been through a major restoration project during which the wartime huts in which vital codebreaking work was conducted were restored to their wartime appearance, and the landscape around them returned to its 1940s feel. Prior to this project the huts were in an appalling state of repair and close to being lost. The rationale employed by the Bletchley Park Trust in restoring them was firstly to stop them falling down, and by all accounts this was very close to happening. But rather than just preserving crumbling wooden huts, they were restored and made accessible to the public with audio-visual interpretation and set dressing in order to allow visitors to understand and experience the rudimentary conditions under which the difficult cerebral work of Bletchey Park’s wartime codebreakers was conducted.
A similar logic was applied to the landscape of the site which had been encroached upon by modern car parks. These were removed and the wartime landscape recreated, as can be seen in the pictures below, not only capturing the wartime feel but also providing much better space for visitors to enjoy.
The two examples I have cited above have been largely about the restoration of buildings and landscape in order to evoke a particular period. There is of course equally strong merit in just preserving sites and buildings, be it for their architectural value or because the cost of doing anything more would be prohibitive. Many a ruined castle would fall in this latter category where their reduction to ruins happened so long ago that the cost involved would be enormous. Equally in a ruined castle it is relatively easy to interpret the story and purpose of the building for a visitor, perhaps negating any more intrusive restoration.
Recreating lost buildings and places from scratch also has its place. Obvious, and timely, examples are the replica trench systems that have been dug in a number of locations in the UK (and abroad) to tie up with the First World War Centenary. These include the Coltman Trench at the Staffordshire Regiment Museum in Lichfield, and the Digging in project in Glasgow. In these cases replica trench systems allow students and visitors to experience the physical surroundings of the trenches, which is difficult to do on the actual battlefields where most of the original trenches have long since disappeared.
Debates about the merits of preserving a heritage site versus the more radical approach of restoration, or rehabilitation as undertaken at Gettysburg, will, I have no doubt, continue to occur in many different guises in the future. And the arguments either way are rarely likely to be clear-cut. What I have tried to suggest above is that at some heritage sites the careful restoration, and in some cases selected recreation of spaces, places and buildings, can provide a greater insight into the importance of a place. In doing so the aim should always be to engage a visitor, and/or an inquiring mind. If this can be achieved through careful and sympathetic restoration, then it is probably much better to follow this path than leaving derelict buildings preserved in aspic to attempt to talk for themselves!