30 January 2013

100 Years of Protecting the Past

A hundred years ago this year, the British government under Herbert Asquith recognised for the first time the State’s duty to protect the physical remains of its history. Over the course of 2013, a series of exhibitions, a book, and a BBC television series will all mark the centenary of this heritage milestone.

Ministry of Works panel

An old Ministry of Works panel highlighting that a particular ancient monument is protected under the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act. This particular panel was at Chysauster Ancient Village in Cornwall.

The Ancient Monuments Act of 1913 was a landmark moment for heritage – it created many of the powers still used to safeguard the nation’s legacy of historic buildings.

The Act also effectively established the National Heritage Collection, Britain’s outdoor museum today consisting of 880 historic sites and now in the care of English Heritage, CADW and Historic Scotland. This national collection spans 5,000 years, ranges from prehistoric stone circles to a 1960s Cold War Bunker, and includes Stonehenge and Hadrian’s Wall.

Framlingham Castle

The magnificent 12th century Framlingham Castle in Suffolk – one of the first historic sites to join the National Heritage Collection under the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act.

The immediate motivation behind the Act was to prevent American collectors buying historic houses and interiors and transporting them across the Atlantic. Many panelled rooms, staircases, fireplaces and even ceilings were being removed from important houses. “In these cases the government…is absolutely helpless,” said Lord Curzon in 1912, the former Viceroy of India, the restorer of the Taj Mahal, and a key figure in the passing of the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act. “We regard the national monuments to which this Bill refers as part of the heritage and history of the nation…they are documents just as valuable in reading the record of the past as any manuscript or parchment deed.”  

Two of the Act’s major innovations – the preservation order and scheduling – established the statutory protection of those parts of the nation’s heritage in private hands. It would develop in future years through the listing system and a rapidly evolving planning system.

EH Centenary logo

“Imagine England without Stonehenge, imagine England without its great castles and abbeys, and imagine England without its great historic monuments,” said Dr Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage. “It is largely thanks to the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act that these stone, brick and iron eye-witnesses to our past survive today to tell their story.” English Heritage traces its origins back to the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act and today is the government’s principal adviser on heritage in England and cares for the country’s National Heritage Collection.

Exhibitions, BBC Series, and Book

From Betjeman to Brutalism, prehistoric stone circles to post-war buildings, five special exhibitions at London’s Wellington Arch this year will trace the history of heritage, beginning with the birth of modern archaeology and finishing with an exploration of what London would be like today if the Act had not been passed.

This Spring, a new BBC Four series, Heritage! The Battle for Britain’s Past, will follow the movement to protect the nation’s heritage from its early days in the 19th century through to today. Made in partnership with English Heritage, the series draws on new research into the first acts of heritage legislation (including the crucial 1913 Ancient Monuments Act) and features contributions from English Heritage and other heritage bodies.

And in May a new book by Dr Simon Thurley, The Men from the Ministry: How Britain Saved its Heritage (Yale University Press), will tell the full story of the role played by the State in the heritage protection movement.  

The Heritage Year Ahead

The last 100 years has seen many great rescue and restoration projects. This year English Heritage will unveil the results of two major projects at two of the most important sites in its care:

Kenwood House – Robert Adam’s 18th century masterpiece in north London and home to one of the greatest art collections in Britain – re-opens in November 2013, its roof repaired, its exterior refreshed, the Adam rooms restored, the art collection re-displayed, and the overall atmosphere transformed to feel less like a house and more like a home. The Heritage Lottery Funded-project will also see the little-known 18th century Kenwood Dairy restored and transformed into a home for Hampstead Heath community groups.

Restoration work at Kenwood House

Restoration work at Kenwood House

At the end of the year at Stonehenge, new galleries and visitor facilities worthy of the monument’s significance will open and the A344 road which severs the ancient processional avenue to Stonehenge and cuts it off from the wider landscape will be closed. By Spring 2014, the Stonehenge landscape will be restored to a more tranquil and dignified setting.

Continuing the duty, established by the 1913 Act, of identifying the best examples of our heritage for special protection, English Heritage will this year be carrying out surveys of public libraries, post-war art and houses, and even historic signal boxes!

East Holmes Signal Box

Heritage comes in different shapes and sizes – the Grade II listed East Holmes Signal Box in Lincoln was opened by the Great Northern Railway in 1873. It is among the oldest surviving GNR boxes.

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