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Urban Heritage

Updated Thursday, 31st July 2008

A look up and down the high street could reveal more about our heritage than we realise, as Stuart Mitchell explains

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The recent launch by English Heritage of a major report entitled Heritage in Danger has thrown a spotlight on the UK’s many historic monuments and sites that are threatened by neglect, poor planning, or vandalism. It has also in consequence raised the profile of heritage issues in public conversation. The preservation of national – or international for that matter – heritage is not merely a topic of interest to historians and industry professionals. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. People who perhaps wouldn’t fret over the loss of a medieval castle or a stately home are oftentimes the first on the barricades when a football stadium, an old cinema, or an historic pub is at risk of being sold off or demolished. Or witness the general (and thoroughly justified) collective anguish a few days ago when the Grand Pier at Weston-Super-Mare was half destroyed by fire.

Nothing wrong with any of that, I stress: maintaining a viable and interesting national heritage is not just a matter of preserving the physical fabric of long past centuries. It also involves looking after and opening up whatever is culturally significant from more recent accretions to civic life – piers, pubs, sports stadia, and all.

So I was very pleased when recently the OpenLearn team asked me to update our innovative web interactive called ‘High Street History’. You may have seen the original: but if not you can access it by following the link at bottom of this blog. What we tried to do was to show the ways in which the past is embedded in the urban landscape, and how that has grown to be so familiar to us that it’s become almost invisible. We chose a number of generic features that are characteristic of practically every town and then sought to explain how we could view them afresh, to glean clues about the tangible way in which the past was lived. Okay, so churches and statues are obvious indicators of history – and we used those too – but you might not expect brickwork, street signs, or public buildings to yield up a similarly rich vein of material. We tried to illustrate these eclectic sources and show what they can reveal to the passer-by with a series of concrete examples. This wasn’t altogether straightforward. I had thought I had a reasonable understanding of urban and architectural history, but it quickly became clear that I barely knew my cornice from my portico.

Rectifying my weak spots required quite a lot of street tramping to take pictures: a task that fell not only to me but also to Rissa, the creative force behind all the neat web stuff that I utterly failed to understand. There ensued a seemingly everlasting phase of filleting our considerable findings - by which I mean tons of photos - to identify the best possible instances of the townscape features which we wanted to explore. The photos I’ve included here are two that, unfortunately, narrowly missed the final cut.

Factory bell, c.1800s Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Stuart Mitchell
Factory bell, c.1800s.

The first shows what remains of a factory bell pull: but there’s no trace of any such building, even under new usage, nearby. This is the sort of tantalising puzzle that can get the local historian digging around to discover what happened in the vicinity. And, indeed, I discovered – by rooting through the local Victoria County History – that there had been a factory making lead goods built there in the late eighteenth century. It appeared to have been demolished to make way for a playground in the early 1980s.

The second is completely different. It's a cinema built before the First World War, but which you could easily mistake for a 1930s creation because of the radical overhaul to its frontage just before World War II. Such phenomena are revealing about past shifts in public and artistic tastes and we made sure that we delved a little deeper into them in the interactive.

1930s cinema Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Stuart Mitchell
Phoenix cinema, 1930s façade. [Image: Stuart Mitchell]

Whilst I think that the original interactive did a good job and fulfilled its brief, it did nonetheless lack a little regional variation. For some reason, the project budget didn’t stretch to me undertaking a national tour to find good photographs, so rather a lot originated from a two mile radius around my home. Another slight limitation was that I didn’t perhaps make as much of heritage issues – what’s of value? what deserves saving? – as I should have done.

The new, expanded interactive, which we’re preparing for an autumn launch, overcomes these shortfalls with a much wider geographical remit and some ideas on critical topics such as the public commemoration of war. I hope that it represents a solid attempt to show the history that’s ubiquitous around us and to engage more crisply – albeit in a prècised way – with the sort of heritage debates that frequently emerge into the public eye. Do by all means have a look at the interactive now, but also remember to check back (the link will be the same) to see how it’s altered. 

Find out more

If this blog has interested you, the following resources from the Open University should also appeal:

High Street History
Explore the hidden corners of your high street and see how history is buried in the everyday environment with our interactive high street history feature.

Heritage, whose heritage?
Who decides what should be preserved from the past as our heritage? Who is this heritage for and how should it be presented and explained? How can I engage actively with my heritage and have an impact on it? This course endeavours to answer these questions and to engage with current debates on the preservation of the past.

Cities and Technology: From Babylon to Singapore
This very wide-ranging course uncovers the interactions between technological development and the growth of urban living from the ancient world through to the present day. It scrutinises in detail the applications of major technologies – in particular building construction, transport systems, energy sources, and communications. It is designed to develop critical skills such as comparative analysis and the use of historical models of urban development.

Commemoration and history
Go to Open Learn, our selection of free-to-use educational material online. This link offers you a chance to explore debates over the public commemoration of war.

History in decay
A previous blog examines the issue of history’s presence in the physical fabric of urban life from a somewhat different perspective.





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