Magazine article History Today

When in Rome.?

Magazine article History Today

When in Rome.?

Article excerpt

* In November 1992, shortly after taking over as Chairman of English Heritage, Mr Jocelyn Stevens set about the now familiar restructuring of a British organisation. Inevitably, monuments would have to be dropped by English Heritage, and jobs would go. Mr Stevens' plans, possibly to his surprise, generated a ferocious reaction. He fought back. In and interview with The Guardian (November 6th, 1992) he described how he had accepted the charge of restructuring English Heritage from Mr David Mellor, then Secretary of State for Heritage. The public debate fizzled out. But the problem remains.

Amazingly, in The Guardian's second front section on January 13th, 1993, the same David Mellor published an essay entitled |Up yours, Pompeii'. One paragraphs of this provocative piece merits citing at length:

We so often think in Britain that they do things so much better

than we do overseas. And maybe they often do. But however

much the heritage world sometimes resents the busy-bodying

and nannying of English Heritage or the National Trust, the

plain truth is that if we had a site as glorious as Pompeii, there

is no way it would be allowed to fall into this state. And if the

authorities did allow it to do so, there would be a public

outcry. Ecco! Italians are well aware of the state of Pompeii and its prospect were it in the guardianship of English Heritage or the National Trust; paradoxically it is Britons who are not. But there is a larger problem which Mr Mellor has yet to consider. The heritage industry must be developed in a manner consistent with its unique importance to Europe. Trial by Pompeii and Stonehenge is not relevant: there are bigger issues at stake.

First, serious appraisal of the heritage industry in Europe should be commissioned by the EC. It is not an ephemeral or novel issue. It is appropriate to begin at Rome, home to the treaty and |the heart of Europe, and the living chronicle of man's long march to civilization'. A hundred years ago the centre of the city was made into an archaeological park. This vast enterprise dwarfed small contemporary digs at Knossos and Mycenae, for examplee, largely because the resources of the city were thrown into generating a visible myth about its imperial beginning. Its motives were blatantly to convinced Italians and tourists alike that the new Italy had a great, indeed a unique, history.

Tourists, including the founding fathers of the British School at Rome, were drawn to ruins. The first tourists were steeped in the classics; a hundred years ago the apparatus of modern tourism was unnecessary. Augustus Hare's fulsome guide to the city's monuments was more than sufficient. Today, matters have changed. The modern tourist ivariably lacks a classical training. Most are bewildered by the unkempt ruins that constitutes the Forum of Rome and understandbly hanker for information technology and the paraphernalia of the heritage industry. Modern Italy, for various reasons, has resisted the persuasions of the industry of heritage, as Mr Mellor discovered to his apparent surprise at Pompeii. The phrase does not even exist. Instead, as in late nineteenth-century Rome, words like patrimony and tourism have bred their own ethos and their own ministries.

If we traverse the spectrum of the new Europe to Britain we encounter an entirely different attitude to the past. Here, in essence, the past is a resource. It is commonly said that Britain develops this resource with such vigour because of the poverty of its patrimony. This is a myth. It possesses arguably the best documented, best studied, largest number of monuments (per-head of population, or by square kilometre) in Europe. We may lack Pompeii or Rome, but we have a galaxy of field monuments, country houses and well-serviced museums. For the most part these are the legacy of nineteenth-century conservationists who gave rise to organisations like The National Trust. …

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