Online Debates

During the Covid-19 crisis we have watched the world come to a halt, and while the restrictions of lockdown are not yet over, many of us are beginning to reflect on what the future might be like in relation to the heritage sector. The following are contributions to a debate on ‘Country House Visiting in an Age of Reduced Travel and Digital Horizons’.

Heritage and the Pandemic

by Ben Cowell, Historic Houses

Pandemics have occurred throughout human history, sometimes spelling disaster for entire communities. The buildings and monuments that are left behind bear silent witness to these past tragedies. The humps and bumps of deserted medieval villages like Wharram Percy in Yorkshire speak to the shifts in settlement patterns that followed the Black Death of the mid-14th century. So-called plague churches, such as those at Hamsey in East Sussex and Holcombe in Somerset, symbolize the human cost of unchecked infections. Eyam in Derbyshire is famous for its act of self-isolation after the plague arrived in 1665 in a bundle of flea-ridden cloths transported from London. Between a quarter and a half of the village’s population died, a story that is now told in Eyam’s museum and at Eyam Hall, built just a few years after the outbreak.

The concept of heritage ‘protection’ – a 19th-century idea, given statutory force in the UK mostly through 20th-century legislation – has a connection to the experience of past pandemics. A formative influence on Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust, was her maternal grandfather, Thomas Southwood Smith, in whose household she was brought up. Southwood Smith was a noted expert on diseases and public health, publishing several works on the subject including A Treatise on Fever (1830).  He argued that diseases such as cholera, which swept through London in the 1820s and 30s, could be restrained by paying attention to environmental protection – for example by ensuring clean water supplies, adequate sanitation, and plentiful green space.  “Epidemics are under our own control,” Southwood Smith wrote. “We may promote their spread; we may prevent it. We may secure ourselves from them.”

Octavia Hill devoted her life’s work to improving the environmental conditions of the poor, by enhancing the quality of housing and by protecting open spaces from development. The urgency of Hill’s efforts was a direct response to the public health crises of her day. Without outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and typhoid, there might never have been a National Trust, one of the oldest and most influential of the UK’s heritage organisations. Soon after its foundation in 1895 the Trust assumed wider responsibilities for championing all that was special and unique about Britain’s landscapes. The Trust’s first chairman, Sir Robert Hunter, promoted the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act, one of the earliest pieces of legislation to offer protection to the built environment.

The National Trust now faces a degree of peril because of the 2020 Covid19 pandemic. Its sites have been shut to visitors since 21 March – that last, fateful weekend of freedom when the Trust generously offered free access to its landscape properties only to be overwhelmed by the numbers coming through the gates. Only now are the Trust’s outdoors sites slowly beginning to reopen, on a timed-ticket basis. The Trust estimates its losses this year to be in the order of £200 million.

In normal circumstances, heritage is responsible for nearly half a million jobs in England alone, and £31 billion of Gross Value Added (source: Heritage and the Economy 2019). Thousands of employees have been furloughed over these last ten weeks and might only now be returning to work as the roadmap towards a July reopening of heritage sites and attractions becomes clearer. Longer-term damage is being felt to the supply chain of firms that provide services to historic places – the self-employed skilled crafts-workers who might depend on conservation projects that have been cancelled because of the lockdown.

Many of the places represented by Historic Houses depend on the income that derives from public opening – from admission fees, retail and catering spend, or events such as weddings. When surveyed in April, three quarters of Historic Houses places said that they would run out of cash within six months, while a small number had already used up their reserves and were surviving on loans and emergency grants. Collectively, the houses estimated that they stood to lose hundreds of millions of pounds of income and would not be employing their usual teams of seasonal staff for 2020. The decision to allow gardens in England to reopen from 23 May has helped some to recoup a little of their lost income but has required the imposition of careful social distancing measures for visitors.

Historic buildings in the UK are now heavily protected by the listing system – meaning that a 21st-century wave of pandemic-related demolitions is unlikely. Most listed buildings after all will still be standing in a hundred years’ time. The threat posed to heritage by the pandemic is instead that of the loss of public access, resulting from Coronavirus-induced financial shortfalls. Will the National Trust need to mothball some of its sites, until it can afford to reopen them? Will some of the independent owners represented by Historic Houses find that they need to shut their doors for the last time, send the collection to the auction house, and put the house on the market? Will the country still have the sort of access to heritage that it enjoyed before the pandemic, when more than 94% of the population in England agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that ‘it is important to me that heritage buildings or places are well looked after’ (source: DCMS Taking Part survey)?

The truth is that many historic buildings in the UK have in the past braved far worse conditions than those caused by the Covid19 outbreak. Whether the same can be said of the people and organisations that support those buildings remains to be seen.

The Future of Historic Houses

Dr Annie Tindley, Newcastle University

We are currently living through a period of a historic crisis, our social and economic norms and privileges paralysed by the impact of the coronavirus. The crisis and subsequent lockdown has brought into sharp relief the vulnerabilities of the economic model typically relied on by historic houses: a steady stream of visitors arriving to enjoy their beauties and provide the income required to conserve and protect them. Social distancing and further lockdowns are likely to continue in the short to medium term and so a deeper questioning of the future identity and operation of historic houses is required. Of course, the 2020 public health crisis is far from the first (or likely last) major social crisis these properties have faced: world wars, civil wars, the 1918 influenza pandemic and the less well known but equally destructive forces of neglect, abandonment and familial financial collapse are part of the history of these properties. Like these historic crises, the coronavirus poses existential challenges but also an opportunity to think creatively and opportunistically about the future. The key question to be asked is not a new one, but perhaps the answers will be, and that is: what are historic houses (and their grounds, gardens and estates) for?

This has long been deeply contested territory. Traditionally bastions of a narrowly-defined kind of power, they have been steadily democratised over the course of the last century, and perhaps this process will be accelerated by the virus. In Scotland, a long history of land reform and political campaigning has resulted in a stubbornly narrow range of anti-aristocratic political narratives while leaving the concentration of landownership broadly similar to what it was in 1900, or even 1800. These narratives have not always been productive; there is room for a change in the parameters of the debate which the current public health crisis might invigorate. For instance, as society found itself locked down, access to outdoor spaces with their importance to our physical and mental well-being came into sharp focus and historic properties could play a critical role in social recovery by opening out their landscapes further. Pressing issues around climate change, the ‘nature deficit’ plaguing contemporary British society and environmental education could be led and addressed through the careful management of historic properties and landscapes. One of the results of this would be to de-centre the historic house from the average visitor experience to re-focus on the demesnes, policies and wider landscapes in which they often sit. Historic houses could have a more inclusive story to tell if they pursue these kinds of priorities.

But how can the experience of the house be maintained and shared? Happily, current research into digital heritage and design collaborations can give us some indication of the possibilities. Projects which set fully inclusive terms have been piloted, with designers and artists working with house families, owners, managers and – often forgotten – bodies of volunteers to create digital installations, virtual reality experiences and online resources are already being tested in some properties. These can be made available to anyone in the world with an internet connection but are far more than a film of a walk around a historic house. They are interpretations of the spaces, people and history of those houses, designed collaboratively with the people who live and work in them every day. They are creative interpretations with the flexibility to promote discussion and debate, rather than simply offer a passive experience. It is this participatory principle which will be critical in our more restricted world. Visitors go to historic houses to experience them; their architecture and collections of course but also the ‘feel’ of the rooms, how the history of the families who have lived and sometimes still do has permeated the fabric of the place, for good or ill. The constantly advancing digital techniques now available, allied to a democratisation of the technology required to participate in them, is an opportunity for historic houses to keep engaging visitors and supporters from around the world and out in the gardens and could become a permanent and positive legacy of the current crisis.

The Country House in an Age of Social Distancing

No Man is an Island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main – John Donne

by Christopher Ridgway

Few buildings are expressly designed for the purposes of social distancing – prisons, monastic cells, and mausolea (the ultimate locus of apartness) come to mind most immediately; but even an institution like a prison is built around spaces for isolation as well as for assembly. All buildings are about sociability in some form, shaped around a variety of functions from schools, to churches, town halls, restaurants, railway stations, country houses and many other examples. Predicated on congregation, their organisation, size, and layout determine how people interact inside them whether for the purposes of conversing, learning, eating, worshipping, and so on.

Country houses were built to host and entertain, a tradition that goes back to the obligations of hospitality in medieval castles and earlier. The social unit would revolve around the family, their guests, as well as servants and retainers; at a wider level this would extend beyond the confines of the building to include tenants and the local community. From the Enlightenment onwards divisions indoors between public and private space became more pronounced, and this architectural shift denoted a new understanding of zones of personal retreat as distinct from those of social exchange. Recent studies of the country house have examined how such buildings functioned as social machines and household hierarchies; architecture and human life interacting across dining rooms, saloons, bedrooms, below-stairs spaces, and regions of transit such as staircases, halls, and corridors. In varying degrees space in a country house will always accommodate human proximity and human separation.

There is of course a contrary viewpoint, one that historically views the country house as the ultimate statement of social distancing: socially exclusive in terms of class and wealth, and geographically remote, shielded behind estate walls and gates. It is the privileged domain for a few, with limited opportunities for wider entry beyond a narrow caste. However this traditional critique has broken down in recent years with studies that situate the  ‘big house’ in a wider spectrum of social relations, extending to tenanted acres beyond the demesne, as well as local and regional economies.

This isolationist view has further broken down in recent decades as the country house has moved from a private preserve for the elite to somewhere that attracts a much broader demographic in the form of paying visitors. Thus many houses today live a binary existence as places for the few and for the many; houses that are open to the public maintain, in a modified manner, their traditional function as gathering places, where all are welcome. The demographics of occupancy have in some cases changed: established families might still be in residence, or they might have been succeeded by new owners in the form of heritage bodies with their cadres of professional staff; either way both act as ‘hosts’ to a paying public.

Thus what was once the abode of the few has become the destination for many. Some houses can afford to shut their doors entirely but a good number have repositioned their relationship with the world. Consequently the balance between public and private has been recalibrated, not least of all in terms of visitors who enjoy wandering around what they perceive as private, or formerly private, space; interiors that belong, or belonged, to someone else. Private or elite space has acquired a new public identity, shaped by social curiosity, the wider expectations of leisure and tourism, and lifestyle aspirations.

These changes in occupation, purpose, and identity have over the last seventy years evolved within the heritage industry to the point where the visits of many have generated a prosperity that has helped to secure the future of a house. Covid-19 has overturned that equation. Social distancing is, in effect, the new privacy, redefining personal space in a radical way, creating barriers that are more subtle and rigorous than park walls or class boundaries. The physical wellbeing of the individual now trumps all else, creating new pressures on social and architectural structures. If the old exclusivity was primarily defined in terms of political, social, and economic status, then the new exclusivity is determined by public health criteria.

For many houses this means tearing up the established offer and re-thinking how people can experience their indoor offer. The era of cramming visitors through the door in ever-growing numbers has disappeared, at least for the foreseeable future. A new calculus must balance the logistics of house opening with its economics, together with responsible social distancing, whilst also delivering some quality of visitor experience. Behind these considerations lies a fifth factor – demand. If a house opens its doors will visitors still wish to come? Can opening a house remain commercially viable if less and less numbers chose to visit? Is the country house set to revert to a space for a tiny handful of inhabitants or key staff?

Country houses have always had an elastic quality to them, despite the fact that their physical dimensions are fixed. They are large spaces that can provide comfort for a handful of people, as well as expand to accommodate hundreds of guests at banquets, balls, or from coach parties. But today these social dimensions are contracting. Visitors can no longer circulate or mingle as before, proximity is discouraged. Now defined by the ‘bubble’, they will have to be routed through the building in small pulses in accordance with public health guidelines.

Inevitably one’s perception of country houses is influenced by how these interior spaces are populated. The emptier they are the larger and more exclusive they seem; added to which stories of grand gatherings in the past become equally remote not just in time but in space too, as people become less familiar with the concept of large assemblies. All of this places an enormous challenge on opening and interpreting country houses; but there is a great opportunity to be had as well. Covid-19 has let the digital genie out of the bottle as never before. Now comes the chance to decouple house income from physical footfall, and direct attention to virtual footfall and the infinite reach of digital interpretation. The abode of the few can continue to open its doors to the many; in fact to many, many more visitors, but without them necessarily crossing any physical threshold. Beyond this welcome expansion lies a paradox however: in a world where surrogacy is the new normal a much greater premium will, in time, be placed on re-connecting with the real.

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