Historic England: Defining and Managing Heritage

Emily Gee: ‘Defining and Managing Heritage in a World City’

Emily Gee, the London Planning Director at Historic England, concluded the annual London Conservation Conference of the Heritage of London Trust by speaking about the way in which Historic England deals with contested heritage. Her talk, entitled ‘Defining and Managing Heritage in a World City’, looked at international and cultural diversity in London’s listed buildings and monuments and addressed how revising listings can establish a broader, more inclusive understanding of the capital’s history.

Gee began by exploring how heritage is read within the landscape of London, a city of movement and migration, and how the diversity of the population affects the character of the built environment. Looking specifically at listed sites, she explained how re-listing has given Historic England the opportunity to expand contextual narratives as a springboard for a more comprehensive educational programme that challenges our current historical knowledge. Using the Grade II* listed Brick Lane Jamme Masjid, or Great Mosque, in Spitalfields as a prime example, Gee explored how multi-faith buildings within the capital exemplify its cultural and religious diversity and reflect the changing nature of the city. The building was first created in 1743, called the Neuve Église, it was a church for French Huguenot refugees. The increase in Jewish immigration to the area in the beginning of the nineteenth century led to it being established as the headquarters for the Society for Propagating Christianity among the Jews, until 1819 when it was taken over by Wesleyan Methodists. In 1896 it became the ‘Great Synagogue’ for Ashkenazi Jews feeling from Eastern Europe and Russia, then in 1976, this was replaced by the Jamme Masjid to serve the growing population of Bangladeshi Muslims in London’s East End. Gee explained that the recent 2010 addition of the 29-metre-high minaret-like structure on the façade, which received some criticism at the time, was supported by Historic England as a reference to the current faith of the building and led to a revision of the original 1950 listing. Gee also referenced the recently-listed first purpose-built mosque in London, Fazl Mosque in Southfields, designed by J.H. Mawson and unveiled in 1926, as a statement of the acceptance of the Muslim faith in London by the British establishment. 

Looking at further examples of multi-faith architecture in the capital as a reflection of the diverse community, Gee went on to explore Jewish commercial buildings and Italian post-war cafés. The listed Zoroastrian Centre in Rayners Lane was used to demonstrate the reusable nature of cinema buildings for thriving mass congregations (fig.1). The Grosvenor cinema, a 1936 Art Deco building designed by Frank Ernest Bromige LRIBA, was closed in 1986. Gee explained that it had been at risk in 2000, when it was purchased by Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, which funded the restoration and renovation of the building, to create both a European headquarters and a place of worship.

In the twenty-first century Historic England has been looking at way of commemorating anniversaries of key events such as women’s suffrage and the abolition of the slave trade, using re-listing as a means of re-contextualising listed buildings and statues to establish broader, more inclusive narratives. 41 listed sites have been chosen to be revised in order to draw out the links with the suffrage movement. Gee argued that the recent unveiling of Gillian Wearing’s statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square makes a significant contribution to redressing the balance and establishing the importance of women’s suffrage in the political sphere, but much more needs to be done in this area. 

The bicentenary commemorations of the 1807 Abolition Act, which saw the end of the slave trade across British territories, led to the amendment by Historic England of various listings related to slavery and the abolition movement. A map was also created in 2001 that identified national areas linked to the 1807 Act, in order to establish links with academics and other organisations’ research. The monument to Joanna Vassa, daughter of abolitionist and ex-slave Olaudah Equiano, was rediscovered in 2005 in Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington, Hackney, and was restored in time for 200-year anniversary (fig.2). It was granted a Grade II status the following year and has been recently restored.

Gee set out the general advice of Historic England when considering contested heritage, such as the statue of Cecil Rhodes (1911) on the façade of Oriel College, Oxford and the 1895 statue of Edward Colston, on Colston Avenue in Bristol (fig.3). In 2011, before the rise of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign, Historic England were asked to re-list the Oriel College statue. This gave them an opportunity to address the issues surrounding it, allowing for new interpretations whilst appreciating the significance of the statue. She explained that the approach in listing is to establish whether the statue is significant to the building, harmful or beneficial to the public, as well as surveying the historical value of the work.

The Colston statue in the centre of the City of Bristol was Grade II listed in 1977 and has been subject to numerous covert methods to recontextualise it, such as the shackling of his legs with a red woollen ball and chain in early May 2018. There are current, more formal, proposals for an additional plaque that will explicitly state Colston’s involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Instead of removing contested historic statues, Historic England encourages a thorough investigation of a statue’s historic context and the consideration of approaches such as an additional plaque, interpretation board or artwork to aid re-interpretation and to broaden the narrative in our public realm. Gee stressed how new public art projects can not only diversify the streets, but provide an important counterpoint to contested history.

Gee concluded her talk by looking at how we can provide alternative narratives, using the responses to the 1872 Confederate Memorial Obelisk in St Augustine, Florida as a good example. The pre-Jim Crow era monument commemorates 44 Confederate soldiers from the area, in obelisk form. In that city, the approach to address this monument and encourage community conversations has been led by a panel of local experts, who are undertaking a thorough interrogation of the context of the memorial, which alongside a public consultation will lead to a reinterpretation of the monument. This process is explained with a public sign. Gee championed this approach and encouraged the audience to look at the recent Historic England guidance on the complex area of contested heritage.

Gee also referred to Historic England’s current ‘Immortalised’ season, which seeks to draw attention to contested heritage and to debate how, why and who England remembers in its streets, buildings and public spaces and which will feature an exhibition opening on 30 August 2018.

The Heritage of London Trust’s one day Annual London Conservation Conference, ’2000 years of history: the world’s cultural capital’ was held at the Society of Antiquaries, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London on 15 June 2018.

Main image: The Monument to Joanna Vassa (1795-1857), Abney  Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington, Hackney  (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Aurora Corio