It’s time we changed how we see buildings in York!

The structure of Taught Masters courses, offered at the University of York’s Archaeology department, incorporates ‘Research Skills’. These practical modules allow students to learn and obtain new skills for the Arts and Heritage Sector. For the beginning of this term I picked Practical Building Conservation and I was not disappointed – it was fantastic!

Over the last four weeks we have been learning the basics of hot lime mortars and plasters, earth mortars, traditional cob and rammed earth buildings, stone masonry, drystone walling and timber structures. There is a great emphasis on practical experience, so we’ve all been trying our hands at various techniques from building and plastering walls to squaring timber using axes the ‘old fashioned way’. These are skills that have sadly been in decline in recent years but, are thankfully starting to make a comeback!

Having learnt these basic skills I’m surprised to find so many buildings that make up the iconic landscape of York have received misguided ‘conservation’ in the past, which is subsequently leading to their destruction today!

Take this building for example:

DSCF1189[1]

Evidently a medieval timber framed building – do you think it looks in a good state of repair?

There are tell-tale cracks in what appears to be a cement render on the studding between the timber braces. The dark patches around the timber braces show evidence of trapped moisture – cement is not porous, so any water that is absorbed by the timbers is locked within the wall creating damp patches and cracks. This is also bad news for the timber itself. If water can’t escape then the timber is continually water-logged leaving it vulnerable to decay. If no action is taken, in time the original timbers in this building will rot and the walls will become unstable, to the point where they will crumble away.

Where is this building I hear you ask? The Shambles – York’s most famous street!

The Shambles

Inappropriate ‘conservation’ in the past has led to the acceleration in these buildings’ aging processes. While they have survived for hundreds of years, we could kill them off in just one.

Next time you’re taking a stroll around the city centre look up above the shop fronts to the upper part of the buildings – you’ll be surprised how many need urgent attention! Increased awareness of this problem is our only chance to actually save these historic and iconic buildings before they are lost to the mists of time and mere nostalgia. So if you get the chance to learn traditional building skills take up the opportunity – you might one day be able to save a building’s life!

-Becky

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The Heritage Value of the Willow Disco

The façade of the Willow Disco, Coney Street (YorkVision)

The façade of the Willow Disco, Coney Street (YorkVision)

“This is the place where every good night out in York ends. This is where dreams come true. This is Willow” LiamtheFizz

Not my words, but those of a Willow enthusiast recently posted on trip advisor. As a student at The University of York for the past 3 years I have come to love, as have many of my peers, the Willow.

For those unfamiliar with the York nightlife scene, the Willow is a small privately owned nightclub located in the centre of town. Originally a tea room, it was purchased in the early 1970’s by two brothers who turned it into a Chinese restaurant and takeaway. As the popularity of the disco rose…and the quality of the food fell, the establishment increasingly focused on its reputation as a nightclub, eventually abandoning serving food all together in around 2008. At the same time it limited its entrance policy to students only, which combined with the already aggressively cheesy music, free prawn crackers and cheap alcohol led to the Willow rising like a phoenix out of the flames of hygiene inspection reports.

The renowned attitude about the Willow Disco

The renowned attitude about the Willow Disco

The Willow is currently the only student only nightclub in York and arguably plays an important role in the experiences of many students who attend York’s universities. It is the only nightclub in York to have its own student run social media pages and it is also frequently featured in the student run media. A false story relating to its closure was even used as an April fool’s joke by the student newspaper ‘York Vision’. However comments relating to this false news demonstrate a more serious depth of passion which students have for The Willow with a student for example stating that:

“I can’t believe we didn’t get to say goodbye. I know that sounds stupid, but the loss of Willow feels like the death of a friend. I’m genuinely quite upset by this. I’ll be holding a Willow memorial service next term for anyone who’s interested.” (Jones, M)

I am guessing that you’re now wondering how this relates to heritage, particularly in York, a city whose reputation is built on the heritage sector. For the most part you would be right, the Willow is of no significance nationally, regionally or even for many, locally. However for many students, past and present, the Willow is a place which holds significance to their experiences of York. For this reason I strongly believe that the value of the Willow as a heritage place to students should be acknowledged through its placement on a local heritage list.

The extensive queue representing Willow's Social Value

The extensive queue representing Willow’s Social Value

Now there are many arguments that could be used to counter this claim, however one of the greatest obstacles to overcome is the idea that students are not ‘true locals’. I would refute this concept in two ways, which are as follows:

  • Yes, students in York are transient, non-york native and essentially a minority group however should this mean that they are denied places of heritage within the city? Can we not, through giving students heritage places of their own within the City, increase their connection to the wider heritage patchwork of York, ultimately improving student-native relations?
  • The Willow is more than just a place once visited. From my personal experience, I have seen alumni plan a return visit to York around the Willow and conversations with past students often converge on memories of events within it. As such I would argue that the Willow is more than just a nightclub, it is a monument, both to the freedom of university life and to the loss of one’s youth. It therefore essentially doesn’t matter that students are not native to York. A monuments value is determined by the significance held to that particular place by a group of people, irrespective of origins of those people and the length of time they spent there.

There are numerous other problems associated with the potential listing of Willow, including questions relating to its modernity and the practicality of what to actually designate. However I believe the Willow raises interesting questions both to the definitions of concepts such as localism and the scope to which heritage can apply.

-Andy

Marketing Heritage: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.

Recently, it has repeatedly been drawn to my attention that heritage often seems to be failing in its interaction with younger audiences. Such a phenomenon has been referenced in previous Heritage York Project posts (http://heritageyorkproject.com/2014/10/22/what-is-the-point-in-the-national-trust/), but has also been flagged up during various seminars and over the course of my work at Harewood House Trust throughout summer 2014.

In response to this issue, I would like to raise a point that is little discussed in literature surrounding this debate; the notion that in perpetuating the idea that organisations such as National Trust are the domain of an older or middle England social group, we are actually in danger of cementing a self-fulfilling prophecy. By continually referencing this trend in debate we are possibly alienating young adults and students who, even before visiting sites, are becoming ever more likely to feel like they will not fit in when they do.

I would like to take a small step towards breaking down the myth that heritage is dominated by the retiree. If one visits organisations such as the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum or the Royal Armouries, often the balance of age in visitors is swung much more towards the lower end of the spectrum.

Major museums do differ hugely from sites owned by National Trust or similar organisations such as English Heritage, in the scope of their collections and the way they are presented, but this observation does draw attention to the fact that the myth that younger generations are to some extent ignorant or unobservant of their heritage is often untrue. Even within the country house setting, so often linked with the elder heritage audience, younger members of the population will often find engaging material (at least this is my experience when showing friends and family round Harewood House, perhaps they were just indulging what they view as a very odd interest of mine!).

Heritage is fun, engaging and ties into a huge amount of activities already enjoyed by large parts of the population, including students, young families, teenagers and pensioners. In recent months around York and Leeds alone a huge amount of events, including exhibitions, film screenings, light shows, theatre events and more have taken place (see Castle Howard http://www.castlehoward.co.uk/whats-on.html and the Royal Armouries http://www.royalarmouries.org/events/events-at-leeds/).

Such events are often missed or side lined because of their link with this myth that heritage is about the old and for the old. Certainly, this is an important part of heritage but it is not defining of it! However, if heritage, particularly in the media keeps focusing on this debate it may become quite definitely cemented in the minds of younger generations. It is the responsibility of everyone interested in the future of our heritage, and our heritage organisations to make sure this does not happen! Heritage is for everyone and it should be our key goal to make this clear!

-Hannah

 

Alt – J and the integration of contemporary music at heritage sites.

Alt J - 'This Is All Yours' Album Artwork (Wikipedia 2014)

Alt J – ‘This Is All Yours’ Album Artwork (Wikipedia 2014)

music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Somewhat overshadowed by the launch of U2’s ‘Songs of Innocence’ invasive marketing campaign. In early September 2014, alt-indie band Alt-J launched a mobile application on iOS and Android to stream their latest album ‘This Is All Yours’ before its official release. Using BLAST technology (a geolocation software tool), the app allowed the user to stream the album when in a particular location.

UK Locations for streaming

UK Locations for streaming

Sites across the globe were chosen by Alt-J, “that are perfect for experiencing the album for the first time” (AltJ Blog). These sites were characterised by their natural beauty or historic significance. More often than not, these sites encompassed traditional heritage criteria, some were even nationally listed Heritage sites.

Music is a powerful source. We form connections with it, associate it with our memories and it can even have the potential to modify our feelings and emotions. The ‘This Is All Yours’ App presents an alternative new era in heritage engagement, by adding a further dimension to the heritage ‘experience’. Whenever we watch historical movies or TV shows, shots of heritage locations are accompanied by a musical score. Is this ‘cinematic experience’ what the public are expecting from heritage sites? but more importantly are the public demanding it? Audio/Visual technology at Heritage sites is an already existent use of technology, however in this age of modernity using contemporary media at heritage sites seems like a unique way to connect with a contemporary audience.

This Is All Yours App  - 'StoneHenge Location'

This Is All Yours App – ‘StoneHenge Location’

This new use of technology shows significant potential to increase visitor numbers and revenue at heritage ‘sites’. Most importantly this is a way to engage with an often isolated demographic, the youth of today. Through using this technology dedicated fans of the band would be encouraged to visit these sites, and in many instances this could be the first time that someone has a visited a heritage ‘site’ becoming somewhat of a marketing strategy to attract a wider audience.

As previously mentioned music is a powerful resource. Heritage locations both natural and historical tend to evoke a sense of emotion which music can alter and enhance. A band of atmospheric tone such as Alt-J has the potential to ‘enhance’ the natural beauty of these heritage locations. However it could be argued that this is de-contextualising the site, taking away its ‘true’ meaning by not engaging in traditionalist approaches. On the other hand heritage is a subjective experience, with the use of this application, the user can interact on a personally relatable level. Furthermore the app offers a way to engage with intangible heritage, at a location where no tangible elements need exist. Alternatively the potential of this app could allow for a degree of connection and association to to be had with a tangible location. In contemporary heritage sites the value of music is arguably a contributing factor in the associated value, being able to stream an associated song would promote the understanding of the social situation at the time.

To conclude, the French novelist and poet Victor Hugo once said  “music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”. Contemporary music can help to engage with audiences through personal expressionism and more importantly it can help challenge a lot of the issues that heritage sites are experiencing, surrounding audience demographics and relevance in modern society.

-Dan

What is the point in the National Trust?

A couple of months ago, I listened to a Radio 4 programme called “What’s the point of the National Trust?”

Having just accepted a place to study an MA in Cultural Heritage Management at the University of York, I felt distinctly frustrated to hear the same old words, phrases and high-class insults being associated with the National Trust in this half-an-hour-long debate: rich, snobbish people living in stately homes in their tweed suits being visited by old age pensioners, driving up gravel drives with the well-known green National Trust sticker stamped on their car windscreen as a symbol of their civility, their respect for a heritage organisation remembering the inequalities of the past, and, maybe even their love of Downton Abbey.

This begs the question: is this why young people aged approximately between the ages of 13-25 are less likely to walk through the doors of a National Trust house? Their absence from National Houses became increasingly obvious to me whilst volunteering and welcoming guests in at the front door of Mottisfont Abbey during this summer.

I was even more frustrated at the choice of people who were interviewed to give their opinions on the state of the National Trust: Simon Jenkins (the former of Secretary of State, journalist and Chairman of the National Trust), Anne Widdecombe (Conservative MP), historians, art historians and environmental experts.

What do they all have in common? Well, a younger teenager or student might say that they are all white, middle aged and middle class, high-ranking men and women of intellectual status in academia, government or journalism who do not represent the views of the current, young generation. The fact that this stimulating, if not at times very frustrating debate, was played on Radio 4 (a radio station typically associated with elderly listeners) is in itself a problem.

Of course, I am driving the stereotype to its limit here. I do not believe that the National Trust is a symbol of snobbery, exclusive civility and the inequalities of the past.

The regular visits of the elder generation to National Trust houses is one of the most valuable sources of income for the conservation of England’s beautiful architectural and natural heritage.

And I have huge respect for many of the panelists, particularly Simon Jenkins’ achievements as a journalist, a populariser of history and for his “Bringing Houses to Life” initiative as Chairman of the National Trust over the last few years.

But I do believe that the National Trust and other heritage organisations can do more to encourage young people to enjoy England’s heritage, to give them a voice and listen to what heritage means to them. Young people with fresh ideas about the interpretation of England’s past are the future.

Quentin Letts finished the Radio 4 debate with the following statement:

“For most of its visitors and 4 million members I suspect the real point of the National Trust is escapism with a lovely view, a nice afternoon out, a nice cup of tea, and a souvenir for Auntie Flo, nice, how very Alan Bennett.”

Is this generic statement about the National Trust derivative of that fact that “most of its visitors” are not young people? Do young people feel excluded because their views on the preserved past are not represented, as this programme might suggest? Has the government created a very traditional, narrow view of heritage as a collection of stately homes, landscapes and monuments that many young people find difficult to relate to emotionally?

This blog and the Heritage York Project does not seek to give answers but to ask questions, to stimulate debate and encourage all our readers, particularly young people, to challenge their preconceptions about ‘heritage’. What is ‘heritage’? A stately home? A Palaeolithic monument? A nineteenth-century garden?

Your back garden? We would like to hear your views.

– Richard

A New Year and A New Generation of The HYP Crowd

The start of the new academic year brings a whole new generation of curatorship to the HYP project and new possibilities as to its direction. We, the founding members of HYP, are very excited to see the enthusiasm with which the next generation have taken charge of the project. Our numbers have grown exponentially recently and that can only mean a more sustained growth and a more widely-informed approach to whatever work the new members take on in the coming year.

We started out this project knowing that we wanted to re-approach, critique, and perhaps redress some of the common narratives of York as a place of heritage. We have now passed this work on with a much more informed sense of local perceptions of York, the place, the history, and the experience. More importantly, we have all come away with a far improved understanding of the nature of cultural heritage outreach and advocacy work and the challenges and rewards within this field. We also come away with some reflections on our project, what might have added to it, and what might be carried on in future work. The core of our project during the spring of 2014 was based on liaising with various community groups and members of the public to gather annotated postcards representing individuals’ perceptions and experiences with York. The aim was to discover some unconventional commonalities with which we might challenge the held heritage narratives of York. Instead what we gathered was much more complex.

The many postcards we gathered actually each represented a kind of unrepresented heritage in their own right, that of the personal experiences of their creator with ‘familiar’ places in York, at once singularly unique and very much commonplace. Unique in the sense that each person experiences these places alone in their perceptions, but commonplace in the sense that such personal experiences are had by everyone in different ways. In this project we gave each person who annotated a postcard a small platform to display their personalized York heritage narrative.

This project could’ve have benefitted from more participants and more postcards, that being said we are pleased with the amount we took in and were able to display, some of which we continued to receive even after the final exhibition took place. Each postcard was equally as intriguing as the last, each a kind of snapshot into people’s memory, experiences, perceptions, and personalities. Some were amazing pieces of visual art in their own right, others read like movingly honest and open confessions of deeply personal memories and their associations with places.

Moving forward we have complete confidence in and eager anticipation for the upcoming work by the new generation of the HYP crowd in the months to come. Our core principles remain key though, engaging with disparate and disenfranchised groups, learning and thriving upon the understanding that comes with new perspectives.

We aim to submit a formal write up of our project for publication by the end of this year, so do continue watching this space for updates on the progress of that as well as upcoming projects by the new HYP team.

-Dakota and the previous HYP Team