The Rhodes Building, Oriel College, Oxford

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The Rhodes Building, Oriel College, Oxford © Robert Cutts via Flickr Flickr

Contested Heritage

England's buildings and places help people explore, understand and debate our history. The historic environment is one of the reasons people visit England, and why our oldest places are often our most treasured. Sometimes it brings us face-to-face with parts of our history that are painful, or shameful by today's standards.

Statue of Edward Colston
Statue of Edward Colston in Bristol

Contested Heritage Debate

16 April 2018

A GIF we shared to promote a live Intelligence Squared debate that we are supporting about England’s statues, showed a cartoon image of Nelson’s Column being knocked down. Nelson’s Column was chosen because it is so iconic and well-recognised. This does not mean we are in favour of demolition of any monument and the debate is not about Nelson’s column itself.

It is about how the nation responds to criticism of our public statues and monuments and what they are thought to represent. The GIF was intended to get this across in a quick and memorable way but we know it has caused some concern so we won’t be sharing it again.

Debates like this are going on around the world. It is Historic England’s job to help people look after historic monuments and to promote public understanding and appreciation of England’s historic environment. We believe that having open debates is a good way of doing this.

The debate panel will include four people with differing views about this subject. Intelligence Squared sells tickets to the public to live events. All footage will be made available free to the public afterwards.

Decision making

There are a wide variety of factors to take into account when people make decisions about a contested item but the starting point, when it comes to assessing proposed works, is that harm or loss to a heritage asset can only be justified when outweighed by public benefit.

In a contested landscape, it may not be easy to get consensus about meaning and significance, but it is through a shared understanding of significance that new interpretation or other physical interventions can be most effectively and appropriately made.

Historic England has consulted on guidance for dealing with contested heritage, and it will be published later this year.

Responses to contested heritage

Historic England encourages responses to contested heritage, and, in most cases, responses that do not lead to removal or significant alteration of protected historic sites or monuments. Histories may be re-told or reinterpreted but, once lost, the historic environment cannot be re-made. This built historic record remains our shared physical legacy of humankind. It prompts us to address our past, as understood and narrated by each generation. New responses can involve re-interpretation, new layers and installations, new artworks, displays and counter-memorials, as well as intangible interventions, such as education programmes.

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