Jack the Ripper, heritage or contaminant?

I’ve written quite a few blog posts about the fact that heritage is not a beauty contest. Much of our heritage works with, commemorates and, at times, celebrates terrible tragedies, acts of violence, and oppression. People are often uncomfortable when such sites are designated, especially as World Heritage Sites, but most heritage management organisations, and even governments recognise that these places have as much value for self understanding as the places of beauty. But managing these places, especially managing tourism at these places is complicated. Sites such as Auschwitz have been very careful to design an experience that provoke contemplation and renewed support for democracy and inclusivity, and avoids macabre gawking at the horror. Of course there will always be critical appraisal of such important sites, assessing whether the balance is correct. See Nicole Deufel’s thoughtful blog post here http://nicoledeufel.com/2015/06/12/on-visiting-auschwitz/

But there are many undesignated sites of horror and tragedy, particularly those associated with personal, non-state violence, such as murder sites. There is a large body of scholarship dealing with such ‘dark tourism’ but less has been said about how these places fit into understandings of heritage. The opening, this week, of a Jack the Ripper museum has prompted a lot of reaction on social media, and there is a protest planned. Some of the outrage in this case relates to the fact that the planning application for the museum was for an exhibition celebrating the achievements of the women of the East End of London. As a local resident said, and exhibition focussing on their murder feels like a sick joke.

Sites of violence, especially unresolved violence like this are dangerous. They need to be handled carefully. They can provoke responses that threaten to continue the violence that created them. We have a sense that some, such as Auschwitz, are resources, places where we can learn. Others, like the home of the serial killer Fred West, should be destroyed and decontaminated as far as possible. The house in Soham where Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells were killed was pulverised very carefully and the remains were distributed between selected but secret disposal sites so that they could not be collected as souvenirs as had happened with the West site.

This kind of treatment is evocative of another kind of site that we see as dangerous, nuclear power plants and the waste they produce. Whenever I speak to people about murder sites, and Jack the Ripper in particular, they always ask if there is a time cut off, if the possibility of contemplating murder increases with time. People often use the word ‘half-life’ making the connection with radioactive waste, suggesting that heritage, like nuclear waste becomes less dangerous with time.

There is no cutoff, no cooling off period. Dark heritage is never ‘too hot to handle’ as the careful disposal of the Soham house materials shows. The moral danger is integral to the appeal of dark heritage. In fact, most dark tourism sites commemorate 20th century violence. Once the danger is gone, sites are likely to be forgotten, unless there are interventions, like the Jack the Ripper museum, to keep the story alive.

The same is true with nuclear waste. At the moment, when the waste is produced and there are conflicts concerning its management, public interest is high. Plans for long term repositories such as Onkalo  in Finland call for landscaping to previous form once the repository is closed. So that we will forget it is there, the moral and social danger of the conflict will be reduced. But of course it is also crucially important that we remember what it is, so that we will be able to manage the material safely.

In this it is more reminiscent of ‘official’ dark heritage, such as commemoration of World War I. The intention of much of that heritage work is to ensure that the conflict is ‘not forgotten’ without reigniting the social danger of conflict associated with the slaughter and destruction of war. Can we remember the things we ‘should’, the socially and practically useful information for making society safe, without remembering the dangerous and emotionally exciting mess that surrounds it? Is there a case to be made for managing some dark heritage as contaminants rather than leaving them to be used by anyone who sees a business opportunity?

Research On Archaeology and Blogging

If you’re reading this blog post you probably have an interest in archaeology and blogging. And Fleur Schinning has an interest in you! She’s conducting research on archaeology and blogging as part of her master’s thesis in Heritage Management at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Her research will focus on the use of blogs and social media and how they contribute to the accessibility of archaeology in the Netherlands.

Help her out by following this link and completing the survey. It will only take a few minutes


Royal Heritage – a chance for contribution

This weekend the Sun newspaper published an image of a still taken from a home movie from before WWII of the Windsor family. The future Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and the future Queen Elizabeth II join the future King Edward VIII in a Nazi salute. I won’t link to the image both because I would never link to the Sun and because I understand that the family do not want the image, which was from their family archive, circulated.

Before I go further, however, I should say that I am a republican. I don’t believe that a constitutional monarchy is suitable for Britain and would prefer an elected head of state. So I don’t venerate this family. Further, I think that their constitutional role means that aspects of their private life are a matter of political and historical concern. So there is value in discussing the image, though not so much value that it needs reproducing here.

It is already widely known that Edward VIII was a Nazi sympathiser. It was not, of course, the trigger for his abdication, that was for the much more serious concern stemming from his marrying a divorced woman (who was also a Nazi sympathiser). So we knew already rules of succession saved us from our head of state siding with Hitler.

What the image shows us is that while his brother, George the VI, had never been known to support Hitler, and was a symbol of British resistance to the Nazis through the war, his wife and his daughters and so, perhaps, he himself, had been comfortable enough to, at the least, play along before the war.

Does this mean they were all closet Nazis? That they secretly supported Hitler? That Queen Elizabeth II is suspect? No. It reminds us of something much more important. That before the war many people did sympathise with the Nazis. Nazi sympathisers were not seen as ‘crackpots’. That the right wing has long been powerful in Britain and this is not benign.

The Windsors were far from the only family with this kind of past. The longer we tell the story that Britain always and only stood against the Nazis the easier it is for us to ignore what the right wing in Britain did and still does.

So, I wish that the Queen would put her concern for privacy to one side. That she would put her embarrassment to one side. That she would step up and be a leader of her people. That she would discuss her family past with us. Perhaps there are lessons we could learn about how that sympathy turned to disgust. Lessons about how they dealt with that past, if they have. So that the rest of us can have the same discussions and we can build on a stronger understanding of ourselves.

The Royal family are often considered to be a cornerstone of our heritage.(see my post on Kensington Palace here) But that contribution goes beyond pomp and majesty; pretty clothes and fine palaces. Heritage is not a popularity contest; it is the use of the past in the present. We can’t use a past that we are trying to deny.

Heritage, Diversity, the Personal and the Political

Historic England’s Pride of Place initiative has led me to go back over the value of diversity in heritage and the relations between the personal and the political.

In 1980, when I was 14, my older brother brought home a new friend named Lawren Maben. He was one of my brother’s new friends, the ones calling themselves Punks. Living in the conservative town of Guelph in southern Ontario, I found them all exciting. Pushing back against the unofficial uniform of jeans and Heavy Metal t-shirts, these friends styled themselves on a movement that had only just arrived in our neck of the woods though it was already past peak in England.

Middle class suburban teenagers dressing in torn clothes with safety pin earrings and blue hair may not have been the revolution that the original punks were looking for, but it was a bombshell in our community. In a school where being called ‘different’ was an insult, declaring that difference was exciting and brave. A wave of bullying followed and the school dealt with it by declaring a dress code that was aimed at ‘the punks’. If everyone is the same then there will be unity, reasoned the school (without much evidence it has to be said).

But Lawren was also the first of our friends to push back against another norm by ‘coming out’. Sexuality wasn’t something that the school could control through a dress code and the bullying became increasingly violent. When another friend, Scott, responded to the aggressive question ‘Are you gay?’ with a simple ‘yes’, the school was talking about it for weeks; though nobody commented when he wore make-up to cover the bruises from another ‘provocation’.

This was my introduction to the concept of diversity, a world where ‘different’ could be good, but retained an edge of danger. I loved it, and I loved Lawren in particular. He spent a lot of time at our house and had a particularly good relationship with our mother. When I was 16 he had started Art College in Toronto and suggested that I study at the SEED Alternative School, around the corner from where he was living. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SEED_Alternative_School

Lawren moved on to an art career in New York and then London. My brother stayed in touch despite moving to Tokyo himself. We were shocked and hit quite hard to hear that Lawren had died in 1994. After moving to Britain I often thought of him when walking in Russell Square, where he had asked to have his ashes scattered. I knew he had run a gallery called Milch near there, but knew very little about it.

When the Pride of Place initiative was launched, with its crowd sourced map, there was some discussion of how tangible and intangible heritage intersect at Russell Square – a popular place for ‘cottaging’ until the bushes were cut to remove privacy. So I was reminded of Lawren and thought of his connections to the place.

Before adding his connection to the crowd sourced map I went looking to see what I could find about him on the web (which hadn’t taken off by the time he died). First I came across this film at the BFI http://explore.bfi.org.uk/4ce2b7e1ecc1c The synopsis reads:

An interview with Lawren Maben, a `middle-class Canadian skinhead’ who has run an alternative art gallery since 1989, funded through his own prostitution. Intercut with erotic fantasy scenes, Maben `talks freely about his clients/punters, his massive consumption of alcohol and drugs, his SM sex, his fantasies and aspirations, and his virulent hatred for everything and everyone that dare to stand in his way’.

This book on the Young British Art movement is far from charitable about him, but it describes his energy so well that it made me feel nostalgic for my time with him as a teenager. So I have spent the morning crawling through my loft, unsuccessfully looking for a picture of him from that time.

So much for the personal, how is it political and why is Pride of Place more than a self indulgent exercise or advocacy for those who contribute?

For me, it’s the same as when I was 14. Honoring diversity. Acknowledging that unity doesn’t stem from conformity. Heritage is often viewed as a process of selecting ‘the best’ from our past so that we can all draw together with a sense of pride. That kind of pride reminds me of the ‘spirit’ assemblies that my school with its blame the victim dress code would engage in. I prefer the pride that comes from acknowledging and celebrating difference.

Lawren wasn’t a perfect person. He led a difficult life and he died young. But it was the life he wanted, and he bowed to no one. I’m glad that there’s a project which can celebrate the places that were important to him as part of our heritage.

You can contribute to the Pride of Place project, add places to its interactive map. Its about sharing, remembering and celebrating, not protecting or saving. So even if its already gone, that place that’s important in your LGBTQ heritage can inspire others.

Time and World Heritage

World Heritage Sites are designated by UNESCO for their outstanding universal value. They are managed to conserve this value for future generations in perpetuity. These two together combine to create a sense of ‘timelessness’. Some people seem to value this sense of time slowing down or standing still, also related to a sense of ‘stepping back in time’.  If time stands still in these places, then the future is knowable, it will be like the present. Phew! The more we worry about climate change, or even more short term changes such as economic collapse, the more the promise of timelessness seems appealing.


But of course even the most careful management cannot change the passage of time. While change may be debated for longer, some changes are eagerly anticipated, such as the development of new visitor facilities at Stonehenge. This change has taken my entire life to come to pass, and the new ‘solution’ is temporary. The building has been built with minimal foundations and service trenches with the intention of removing it when a more appropriate solution becomes viable.

Does the pressure to be timeless make it more difficult to plan for change? Management for timelessness requires close attention to much shorter time spans. Despite extensive and meticulous planning, English Heritage staff were surprised when the future arrived and the new visitor centre stopped being a plan and started being a place.

First they were surprised by the number of visitors, or possibly the number of visitors who didn’t want to walk. Either way there were huge queues for the use of the ‘land train’ to bring visitors from the centre to the stones. Queuing was not the ‘forever’ experience that visitors wanted.

In fact, the queue highlighted a challenge for the new visitor centre. Stonehenge is a stop on the regular tourist route from Heathrow airport to Bath. Changes in how long it takes to ‘visit’ impact itineraries with many more factors like restaurant bookings and toilet breaks spread across Southwest England. Stonehenge may be the experience of a lifetime for some, but it has its time slot for tour organisers.

This timing problem could be solved by buying more land trains so they could run more frequently.  But there were further unanticipated futures stemming from desire to increase ‘dwell time’ at the site. If the same number of tour busses stay longer at the site, they need more space in the parking lot.

The planning permission for 26 more coaches is valid for 2 years.

Shadow play at Kensington Palace

Yesterday I visited Kensington Palace as part of a conference tour. (http://www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace/) I was very impressed with the heritage interpretation at the palace, which was revamped relatively recently so that each wing focusses on a different time period and the royal stories associated with it. It also attempts to portray different emotional valences to reflect tragedies and attachments of the royals who have lived there. I am not given to feeling sorry for the constrained lives that royals live, but i will admit being moved to be told that Queen Anne had 16 pregnancies and no children who lived past the age of ten. As Hilary Mantel writes (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n04/hilary-mantel/royal-bodies) royal women’s bodies are a thing apart. The written interpretation only mentions her weight gain and gout in later life, the horror of the pressure and failure to breed was imparted by our guide.

Another thing that was passed over in written interpretation but discussed by our guide was the relationship with the current inhabitants. The tour began by describing the palace as an uninhabited royal home. Historic Royal Palaces, a charity, manage a set of these ‘homes’ as public attractions, though they remain the property of the Crown and are not public resources. (http://www.hrp.org.uk/aboutus/whoweare/history) As our guide pointed out soon after, however, Kensington is the home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. They spent millions renovating his great aunt’s apartments before making it their family home. The windows in the ‘public part’ of the palace that overlook their apartments have been obscured so that they are not overlooked or on display. These windows indicate an important fact about Historic Royal Palaces and heritage in Britain more broadly that is rarely discussed.


The Duke and Duchess are the most public members of the British Royal family. When their first child was born the media frenzy over the ‘future King’ was intense. Their presence in the palace is not a trivial or incidental matter. Their presence reminds us that palaces still play a role in the construction and maintenance of power in British society. That is the primary function that palaces still fulfil in our landscape. It is their presentation as heritage attractions that is incidental. Our presence as ‘visitors’; the fantasies that we are guests; play a part in how palaces function. Heritage bolsters this power relation.

The Cupola room at Kensington Palace has been interpreted around courtly music and dance. As in many other rooms, stiffened costumes evoke the long dead. A shadow falls against the wall. When the music plays, the shadows begin to dance. A clever piece of interpretation, also evokes this question for me.


Who are the shadows in this place? The royal family? The heritage industry? The visitors?

A techie one

My apologies to readers who come to the blog for discussions of heritage. This is a post about a technical matter in archaeological recording. I’ve written very quickly to get some very old ideas out there to be useful to others.

I’ve been having a Twitter discussion this morning about how the Harris Matrix is used in archaeological analysis and how that can be supported by digital systems. As often happens it was chaotic and high energy discussion. In the course of the discussion I realised that some ideas I presented at WAC5 in 2003 but have not published separately from the English Heritage Research Reports Series are still worth thinking about and still hold opportunities.

The core of the issue is that in single context recording there are two different systems representing the relationships between archaeological contexts, plan and matrix. The plan represents the spatial relationships and the matrix represents stratigraphic relationships (which are the basis of the temporal relationships).

GIS allows us to interrogate data based on spatial relationships. So we can draw a plan of all the contexts in which a certain pottery type was found. But there is no similar software to allow us to show the location of that pottery within the matrix.

So in 2003 I exported a matrix that had been drawn in CAD into ArcGIS as if it were a plan. This allowed me to display the data ‘in matrix’ in the same way that you would ‘in plan’ The data is from the Stanwick Roman Villa in Northamptonshire and I’m grateful to Vicky Crosby, the project manager, for making the data available and to Liz Muldowney who created the matrix in CAD.

The slides here show some data presented that way. Because the data was not collected with this kind of tool in mind, they aren’t well organised for displaying on. So a bonding agent in a wall may be described in 15 different ways and its hard to display them all at once. The key to making a system like this work is, as ever, data standards. Both standards for describing the attributes of contexts and also for recording their relationships. If we implemented these kinds of standards we could both interrogate our data more easily in Post Ex and also make our data more useful to future researchers.

Stanwick strat

On killing virtual dogs

A really interesting post here about how we become attached to to entities that have no feelings. Artefacts, buildings, virtual dogs in Minecraft. Plenty to think about.


(an excerpt from How You Play the Game):

minecraft-wolf_2757144I have killed three dogs in Minecraft. The way to get a dog is to find a wolf, and then feed bones to the wolf until red Valentine’s hearts blossom forth from the wolf, and then it is your dog. It will do its best to follow you wherever you go, and (like a real dog) it will invariably get in your way when you are trying to build something. Apart from that, they are just fun to have around, and they will even help you fight monsters. If they become too much of a nuisance, you can click on them and they will sit and wait patiently forever until you click on them again.

I drowned my first two dogs. The first time, I was building a bridge over a lake, but a bridge that left no space between…

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Do Archaeologists like finding things?


Do archaeologists like finding things? A recent find of Stoneage artefacts in a previously glaciated landscape has been reported as a boon to archaeology. And many archaeologists are salivating at the thought of more to come.

This exposes a really uncomfortable contradiction within archaeology. Archaeologists do like finding things. We like the thrill of discovery and we like the new data that well recorded finds can bring. But we’ve also been taught through our whole education that excavation is destruction and best avoided. Further, most of the legislative structure which supports archaeology in the Private and Public Sectors is reliant on the argument that the first duty of archaeologists is to preserve archaeological remains in situ.

So how can the glacier find be good news? And in what way is it better news than finds from an excavation prompted and paid for by the building of a motorway or a new building? These circumstances are almost never seen as a boon to archaeology, despite the fact that the destruction is planned, controlled and well recorded. Surely its much better than things appearing from a glacier with no one to pay for their complex analysis and preservation. It reminds me of the ambivalence around the finds of metal detectors – often presented as a boon to archaeology. Again, the recovery of the material is unfunded, and of course a lot of information is usually lost about the context of the material.

While we put a lot of control on research excavations, especially at exciting sites, a new excavation is always greeted with joy especially when rare and delicate materials are uncovered (and in the process the site is destroyed).

The reception of the destruction, the archaeological response to it, is not a factor of what is being destroyed but how it is being destroyed, or even more importantly who is destroying it. So research archaeologists (operating under control and not for the purposes of development) are doing a good job destroying sites. Metal detectors can be doing a good job (according to some people) as long as they are acting under control and reporting their finds to us (are you getting a sense of pattern here).  But destruction through development is always descried, even when the results are really useful and indeed often when they have operated under control. All of this exposes archaeology’s anti-modernist pro-control underpinnings.

Which is why I’m concerned by the joy which greeted the glacier find. The glacier is melting because of global warming. This is modernist landscape change at a scale vastly greater than any motorway project. What’s more, the polluter pays principle which funds the investigation of the archaeology of the motorway doesn’t extend to melting glaciers, eroding coastlines etc. This is a cost that must come out of an empty public purse.

I’d like us to be more consistent about whether finding buried things (which always involves destroying something) is an aid or a loss to archaeology.

A ruined cemetery?

A few months ago I posted a piece about bomb damage to the cemetery near my home (link). I’m still chasing more information about the bombing and its aftermath. But I’ve had more thoughts about the history of damage and decay in this cemetery so I thought I’d update.

There are quite a few broken headstones and memorials some of which have been reused. Its possible that the bombs broke apart these headstones, fragments of which are reused here as kerbstones in the cemetery.


But there are a host of other ways graves and headstones can be disturbed and damaged. Tree roots destabilise headstones.


Storms bring down branches on them.



Many graves are homes for burrowing animals, most likely foxes.


There are also problems with vandalism particularly of the chapels in the cemetery, though I’m not sure how common the problem is. http://www.portsmouth.co.uk/news/local/vandals-break-into-chapel-in-historic-portsmouth-cemetery-1-6069832

This cemetery is no longer open for new plots. The last available plot was used in 1956. Some families still have burial rights and there are a few recent burials, some graves are tended with flowers.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains the war graves.


The Friends of Highland Road Cemetery also work with the city who cut grass, pull back ivy and prop up the broken pieces of headstones.


So is this cemetery a ruin? Its not abandoned, but it has suffered substantial destruction and decay, much of which has not been repaired. The graves themselves are likely to be even more disturbed than the memorials. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ws96lRU2bA While there are occasional burials it will be soon closed to further burials, so it will no longer have its active original function.

But unlike many cemeteries it hasn’t been paved over, built over, exhumed or forgotten. This is partly because it has Commonwealth War Graves and partly because it plays an important role in the urban landscape. While its mostly used for dog walking, the green space is a landmark in a densely populated city. So it performs many of the roles that ruined abbeys and castles do in other circumstances.

Does it matter? The Commonwealth War Graves Commission undertakes to maintain graves in perpetuity (http://www.cwgc.org/about-us/what-we-do/architecture/our-work-today.aspx) but do we expect the graves of civilians to be maintained once their relatives have died or moved away?

I think there is an ambivalence. We are sad but not surprised to see memorials damaged or decayed. Groups like Friends of Highland Road cemetery show that some people care strongly about maintaining these places. The vandalism on the other hand shows that respect for the dead does not carry the same weight for everyone. What’s more, I think some people prefer a cemetery with some signs of decay. As with other ruins it makes the place more open for contemplation, especially contemplation of time and change.

Can a cemetery be a ruin? Should we maintain them? Would you prefer to be buried in a well maintained cemetery? Do you prefer the cemeteries where loved ones are buried to be well maintained? What about those where you visit the graves of the famous?