Image of the burnt out West Pier in Brighton, showing the pier in the background with the beach and masts of boats in the foreground.
Although discussions around loss can be challenging, heritage assets are recognised as a finite resource - once lost, they are gone forever © Historic England Archive. DP018026
Although discussions around loss can be challenging, heritage assets are recognised as a finite resource - once lost, they are gone forever © Historic England Archive. DP018026

Loss in the Time of Corona

By Tanya Venture, CDP PhD student with Historic England and the University of Exeter

The inevitable loss of heritage has never been a comfortable subject to confront.

Heritage is an important part in all of our lives, linked to ideas of our own personal and national identity, community and place. From grand monuments like Stonehenge, to more personal examples such as local churches we like to visit on walks, or family photographs.

Each is a thread that links us to our past, gives us an idea of who we are and helps us prepare for the future. It’s something that we collectively as a society or as individuals recognise as being important enough to want to protect and to hand on to future generations. But, what happens when we can’t save it?

This question has already been asked by the heritage community for some time but has never been more relevant than right now. Loss can take many forms. Sometimes these are very visible, like storm waves crashing into harbour walls or the collapse of cliffs. Often, however, the loss of heritage is invisible. This can include the slow degradation of in-situ material or the quiet destruction of sites that remain undiscovered.

Archaeologists especially have always had a peculiar relationship with loss. In fact a form of loss is actively embraced through excavation in order to uncover information we would otherwise not have access to. Underlying this is the understanding that heritage is a finite resource and this does mean that once lost, it’s gone forever. Prioritising our data and records is one way of mitigating against this loss.

My PhD research concentrates on how we confront inevitable loss or change to the heritage landscape: how do we act, how does our relationship with it change and how do we communicate that change effectively?

The themes I have explored in my research centre on these uneasy aspects of heritage management; themes of loss, change, value and uncertainty that are especially relevant now. Our understanding of these terms, what they mean both professionally and personally, will have changed forever in the wake of the coronavirus. Even in the last six weeks, the meanings of these terms have changed radically.

The coronavirus is a global challenge, the ripples of which will be felt for generations to come. For the heritage industry the implications of this will be devastating. There is a real and actual realisation that some places that previously seemed timeless may have already shut their doors forever.

Understanding our relationship with loss, uncertainty and change is of great importance, now more than ever. There will be many different and valid stages of understanding our relationship to this loss. The conversations ahead are not easy ones to have, but having these uncomfortable conversations with ourselves, both individually and professionally, will help to forge a new relationship with loss and use what we have learnt to move forward. By embracing the transformational aspects of change we can try and form a new relationship with our heritage. 

The future has always been unknowable. The unpredictability of the current situation has highlighted this better than anything else. So, what can we learn from ourselves to help increase resilience as we move through this time and emerge into a new future?

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