The online resource for the historic environment

4.03 Introduction

“Imbued with a message from the past, the historic monuments of generations of people remain to the present day as living witnesses of their age old traditions. People are becoming more and more conscious of the unity of human values and regard ancient monuments as a common heritage. The common responsibility to safeguard them for future generations is recognised. It is our duty to hand them on in the full richness of their authenticity.”
Venice Charter 1964

'“The immediate object of conservation is to secure the protection of built heritage, in the long-term interest of society...The decision to conserve historic 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; para 0.1

“…conservation is largely the art of controlling change.”
Feilden, B. in commentary on Earl, J. Building Conservation Philosophy

Consider the recent destruction of ancient artefacts in consequence of conflict, sometimes that view or understanding may pose a threat to the historic asset.

Our historic environment is of importance not just to the owner of any given asset but also to the wider population who use it as a source of reference about their society and history. An SME has value that is subject to the wider society’s views and requirements. Sometimes that view or understanding can be misguided or formulated for the wrong values and this may pose a threat to an historic asset. It is incumbent on you to protect historic assets and to enlighten and redirect what might be a misunderstanding of the role and importance of sites, monuments and ensembles (SMEs). Once the public are ‘enlightened’ about importance, the protection of the heritage becomes easier to ensure and its improved profile engenders public support for the conservation process. A clear understanding of the role or importance of an asset will help you to promulgate information about it to its owners and the general public.

The composite of information used to gain clarity of understanding of an asset will be complex and multi-faceted and may consist of some of the following influences:

  • Cultural, spiritual, emotional and social significance
  • Function, use and ownership
  • Monetary value
  • Aesthetic value
  • Historic value
  • How it is valued and perceived by the general public

Such worth may, in turn, be affected by other factors:

  • Public attitudes
  • External factors beyond the boundaries of the building (context and situation)
  • Legislative controls
  • Impositions of use such as up-grading of services and new legislation
  • Availability of funding for management, maintenance or intervention works
  • Access requirements
  • Need to generate an income from use to help fund running costs (economic use)

See BS 7913: 2013 para 4.2 for a comprehensive, though not exhaustive, list of factors affecting/influencing significance.

Promotion, understanding and interpretation

An asset is dumb unless given voice by understanding and the projection of that understanding to owner, custodian and the wider public; it is perhaps important to emphasise here that owners are only custodians at a point in time and their possession of an historic asset imposes a requirement to adopt appropriate standards of stewardship, recognising their limited period of occupation and use together with their responsibility to wider society to maintains an historic asset’s record in as authentic a state as possible. To assist you in promoting the historic narrative that an asset offers you must have translation skills that allow you to understand that narrative. Acquisition of such knowledge, and how to use it is offered by this and the other four units in this series.

See BS 7913: 2013 section 1 "Scope" to assist your thinking on this.

Many of the factors influencing the historic environment will be at odds with or in conflict with conservation principles and ethics. There is a need for you, the conservation practitioner, to be aware of these pressures and how they are incorporated in conservation response. Inevitably, some compromise of principles must occur if an asset is to survive in our modern world but it is the ability to manage change without loss of significance that provides the armature on which good conservation practice hangs.

“Without change there would be no history.”
Cossons, Sir. N.

“Priorities must acknowledge what is possible as well as what is desirable.”
English Heritage (1996) A Future for our Past?

You need to have a detailed grasp of the management functions underpinning the running of a SME – how is it to be looked after, how is it to be funded and supported such that its interest to the public is promoted and its significance maintained.

See BS 7913: 2013:
Section 4: "Heritage value and significance"
Section 5: "Using significance as a framework for managing the historic environment"
Section 6: "Significance as part of operational care and other interventions"
Section 7 : "Maintenance"

You will need to be able to demonstrate knowledge of legislative controls affecting and protecting the historic environment. You will also need to demonstrate an ability to identify compatible re-users for an asset that will not threaten its significance. You will be required to demonstrate an ability to manage an asset including identification of project funding sources and income sources. You will need to demonstrate an ability to promote an asset to further its understanding and to encourage use of it without threat to significance or longevity. You should be able to pass on the asset to future generations whilst maintaining authenticity, despite pressures of use.

“At the heart of any judgement about significance lies understanding. We need to know why what is there is there. We need to know how it was constructed, altered and used through time; what survives and what has been lost… Unfortunately, that understanding is all too often seen as a luxury to be dispensed with when costs are tight…”
Cossons, Sir. N. Foreword to Clark, K (2001)Informed Conservation English Heritage.