The online resource for the historic environment

1.04 Cultural significance

“The historic environment…is one of the most accessible of historic narratives.”
Sir Neil Cossons, in Foreword to Clark, K (2001) Informed Conservation English Heritage

“The decision to conserve buildings can be justified on social, cultural, economic and/or environmental grounds, and usually a combination of these. Conflicting pressures often need to be balanced to assist good decision making. Good conservation depends on a sound research evidence base and the use of competent advisors and contractors. BS 7913: 2013 "Introduction"

“Understanding the significance of a historic building enables effective decision making about its future". BS 7913: 2013 section 4 "Heritage Values and Significance".

Perhaps the fundamental question you should ask yourself is what exactly cultural significance is in respect of a building, place, environment or artefact. In simple terms it is the perceived value of that place to society, established as a result of its continuity of presence and worth to society. This worth is a synthesis or composite of its historical, emotional, cultural and spiritual significance. The historic environment will also have established value for its social, architectural and aesthetic worth. Over its period of existence, it is likely to have been subject to interventions of all types, probably brought about by societal needs and aspirations and reflecting society’s patterns of change over time. Therefore it will offer a palimpsest, as readable as any book or painting, portraying or offering a key to an understanding of the procession of historical events to which it bears witness.

The following is an example of the complexities of the word 'palimpsest':

"The city of Montreal is important, a series of surfaces upon which various actors, communities and organisations have left their trace in the form of the built environment. What is the nature of the relationship between a city, its memories and community, and its on-going transformation?... using... [sites and heritage] archival resources and visual culture, contributors to Montreal as palimpsest explored their ...[sites and heritage] as cultural landscapes, reading them for their investments in specific pasts, and revealing the traces of their polyphonic histories".

Dr. Cynthia Hammond, Department of Art History, Concordia University.

In order to clarify your understanding of the words cultural, culture, significance, signify and significant together with history, you should look up these words in a good dictionary and assimilate their meaning.

Was the meaning different to that you were familiar with and had assumed prior to looking them up?

Assessment of cultural and historical significance is an essential precursor to any proposed intervention ensuring that the best possible planning of interventive works is made based on a clear understanding of what is significant about the historic environment, its fabric, artefacts, and context. See paras 4.1 - 4.4 of BS.7913: 2013.

“By pinpointing a site’s qualities, it becomes apparent which features need protection from decay, intervention or removal and how rigidly this protection should be enforced. By working within a common ethical framework, it will be easier to avoid applying contemporary social, political or individual bias to what needs to be preserved.”
Stirling, Bolling, "Framework Document", 2000

Based on your present understanding of significance, prepare a bullet point list of factors influencing cultural significance in respect of the following structures

To assist you in this process consider the listed web-sites

You may wish to refer to BS 7913: 2013 section 4.2 "Values contributing to significance"

A statement of significance should address historical significance, cultural significance, emotional and social significance. It should follow the format suggested at Heritage Victoria see also TAN 8 page 34 flow chart.
See also Informed Conservation. Section 6.8. Clark, K. English Heritage.

Refer to Figure 1, the photograph of a building in St.Andrews Street, Norwich. From the photograph left make an assessment of the effect that the adjacent developments may have had on this historic structure and its setting. It once formed part of the house of Francis Rugge in the 16th century.

After having made your assessment of the effect of adjacent development refer to George Plunkett's Photographs of Old Norwich and re-evaluate your assumptions made prior to visiting the web page.

This exercise may assist you in comprehending why you should not jump to conclusions without full knowledge and understanding of a site’s history.

Make an assessment of how the cultural significance of Queensbury House, Edinburgh, white building on right of picture shown in Figure 2, may have been affected by the development of the Scottish Parliament building, left of picture.

You may wish to pay regard to and compare its significance before and after association with the Scottish Parliament. Think about the fact that its significance may have been raised by its newly acquired association with the Enric Miralles building and the contemporary history of Scotland or, has it been detracted from by its interaction with and absorption into the new Scottish Parliament building? To assist your research you may wish to visit The Scottish Parliament or The University of Edinburgh websites.

The term intervention, in conservation terms, is used as a collective noun to cover any works to change, modify, repair or maintain the historic environment in good condition and in so doing preserve its historical and cultural value or significance. It is discussed in BS 7913: 2013 in para 6.11 "Interventions and Judgement" and as defined in 3.11 , “Action that has a physical or spatial impact on a historic building or its setting.”

The following is a list of terms commonly used in conservation to define intervention. These are:

  • Alteration
  • Conservation
  • Conversion
  • Intervention
  • Maintenance
  • Preservation
  • Protection
  • Rebuilding
  • Reconstruction
  • Repair
  • Replication
  • Restoration
  • Reversibility

The above is not an exhaustive list.

BS 7913: 2013 discusses the term reinstatement in para 6.17. This term under the previous 1998 version of BS 7913 was referred to as "Restoration". Based on your reading of BS 7913: 2013 para 6.17 respond to the following question.

When and under what circumstances might reinstatement be appropriate?

You should read BS 7913: 2013: para 6.9 "Reinstatement of lost features." as doing so may assist you in responding to this question.

You may wish to note that other definitions may vary to that of BS 7913 to reflect international attitudes that are different from the UK.

The terms restoration and anti-restoration have their origins in the Anti-Scrape Movement of the mid 19tgh century. You might also wish to refer to Stephan Tsudi Madsen’s book Restoration and Anti-restoration. Universitetsforlaget 1976, which offers a discussion of the origin and interpretation of the term restoration. You may wish to identify other sources/references for this term. Doing this will enable you to compare and contrast the terms reinstatement and restoration.

See also Burra Charter 1999 Articles 1.7, 1.8, 18 and 19.