What is heritage? How do we define it? How is it useful? How do we balance that use with conservation?
All these questions and more were tackled on a wet and windy Tuesday evening at the end of February in the World Heritage City of Bath, we gathered together at The Guild – a co-working hub in Bath’s Grade I listed, Georgian-era Guildhall – to meet, watch and debate some thorny questions about heritage.
The evening revolved around ‘socially watching’ the panel discussion Why Heritage is our Future. The 20-minute film ranged from definitions of heritage – hard vs soft, tangible vs intangible, community cohesion vs celebrating diversity – to town planning, local council cuts and the curation of our High Streets.
After the film we challenged the Fellows to define their own answers to some of these same questions but to also consider the assets closer to home. Although initially everyone broke the ice with ‘name your favourite local heritage’, the more interesting list came from ‘name an underused local heritage asset’. Responses included a number of hidden gems around Bath and Bristol:
- Corn Exchange, Walcot Street
- Parade Gardens, Roman hot water drains and underground colonnade
- Great Western Railway
- Canal Walk
- Star Inn
- Falkland Tuckers Grave
- Bath Stone Quarries
- Herman Miller Factory
- Fairfield House and Haile Selassie
We heard about the RSA’s work on networked heritage and what can data reveal about Bath’s heritage through the heritage index. With this as a backdrop the discussion then shifted to how each of us defines heritage and how to get the right balance between identity, function, access, activity and a legacy for the next generation. As participants debated their understanding of the assets and activities that could be included under the heritage umbrella, a one of the comments summed things up by saying,
Hard to define what ‘heritage’ is. If we are trying to protect ‘heritage assets’ that’s hard to do if we can’t define that first important word. The concept is very subjective… different views - planers and elected members. Best examples are where modern development can happen which respects city heritage. What is our future heritage?
Or more succinctly, “It’s always political. And a process.”
A number of people commented that they would like to continue the debate as part of a future event. Considering heritage is at the very core of Bath’s identity as a city, as well as its primary attraction to visitors, I have no doubt that this will be a discussion that continues for some time to come.