Colour photo of bookcases in a home office.
Although many people are used to working at home, there are challenges in not being able to carry out site visits or face-to-face meetings. © Marion Barter Associates
Although many people are used to working at home, there are challenges in not being able to carry out site visits or face-to-face meetings. © Marion Barter Associates

A View From the Home-Office: Heritage Consultancy During Covid-19

By Marion Barter, Director of Marion Barter Associates

I provide advice on historic buildings and places, particularly on their significance, using research, on-site investigation and a review of context. Over six weeks into lockdown; some things are the same and others have changed, maybe forever. 

I have worked from home since 2005, so that part of the Covid-19 experience is not a challenge, but making site visits, meeting colleagues and visiting libraries and archives has not been possible. All the courses I teach for have been cancelled, including the RIBA conservation course, which I will miss.

At the beginning of the lockdown, I was lucky to have several projects where the fieldwork had been completed; my last day on site was Wednesday 18 March. This meant that I had lots of writing-up to do, including on Peak District farm buildings, a Cheshire kitchen garden, and Hill Top and Bridge House in Cumbria for the National Trust (the latter with Matrix Archaeology and Dr Pete Arrowsmith).

Some archival research can be done remotely using local and national collections that have been digitised; for secondary sources, AbeBooks stocks a huge selection of second-hand books and I have a small collection. So, it is still possible to offer some new insights into interpretation; we found numerous images of Bridge House in online collections and Beatrix Potter’s published letters were mined for building references including one urging the National Trust to acquire this local landmark in 1926 (Taylor J 1989, 'Beatrix Potter’s Letters', Penguin, 295).

In March, some projects were cancelled or postponed, and enquiries about new work have since dried up. But on projects where significance assessments were completed before March, it’s possible to provide ongoing advice, usually without another site visit. Managing the business is also important; chasing invoices and prioritising those projects where there is certainty of being paid is essential.

The Historic England Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund provides a good opportunity for many of us to think about heritage projects beyond commercial client-based consultancy, like the neglected archive in the attic or a local community site. This is a good time to think about other opportunities and how we could work better, when it is safe again.

There is also something intangible about the ‘current situation’ that affects our ability to focus, whether interpreting a building, writing a report or sending out invoices. The background hum of uncertainty is draining, so it made sense to work fewer hours and take time out to go to the allotment or explore the local area. I live in Glossop, an interesting former mill town; there is lots to see and enjoy. An improved work-life balance is worth hanging on to.

The experience of working through Covid-19 has inevitably been two-dimensional; visiting historic places and meeting people is what makes working in the heritage sector so enriching. It is isolating to work alone. It now seems more important than ever to work with your values by choosing which projects to take on and which to decline.

My plan is to focus only on projects where I collaborate with the building owner and their professional team in a positive way, to make a difference. Spending more time locally has been unexpectedly rewarding, and I hope to be involved in more projects where there is a clear community or public benefit, and also where sustainability is woven into the project.

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