Turning points and milestone

History is mapped out in turning points, those landmark events after which ‘things’ changed in a fundamental way, for good or bad or, really, both. Caesar crossing the Rubicon (sorry, a cliché but oh so enticing!). For some, when a baby was born in a stable, wrapped in swaddling…you know the drill. I’m quite fond of 6th February 1918, The Representation of the People Act. Rock on sisters.

In the present these events  are manifest in milestones. The centenary of the Great War, of course, of course. A nation remembering, in many cases discovering, and reflecting. Rightly so.

More mundane. Today marks twenty years since my dad, daddy, died. Seemingly simultaneously a milestone and a turning point; everything and nothing has changed.


Iconic historic architecture vs. energy efficiency

oum-project-2013-21M Peckett in Billings 2013

The recently completed roofing works at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History were initiated as a response to recurrent leaks during wet weather, and to the accumulation of a century and a half worth of dirt[1], yet it was also an opportunity to implement energy efficiency measures by reducing draughts. Considering a sixth of all heat is lost through gaps in windows and doors in domestic properties[2], that lost through the three glass tiled roofs at the museum must have been significantly more.


Parle 2013a – before cleaning

The removal of the tiles for cleaning and refitting was extremely time-consuming given that each tile is overlapped by three others and due to the delicate nature of the material. The 8,500 Victorian diamond tiles were constructed from cast glass on sand, and the dappled lighting caused by their texture is notably atmospheric and identifiable as a part of the museum[1].

The individual merits of each building should be evaluated when deciding upon a suitable approach for alterations. The ‘spectacular[2]’roof forms an integral part of the building’s character and is a fundamental part of the building’s Grade I listing. It is a rare instance of Victorian neo-Gothic design and craftsmanship, combining glass, decorative ironwork, and wooden struts and beams painted with unusual geometric patterns (which are beautiful, btw)[3]. Therefore, extreme care had to be taken when devising an energy efficiency scheme.


M Peckett in Parle 2013b

To maintain authenticity of fabric and the integrity of the roof’s appearance, the original tiles were retained and mechanical fixings avoided (as they had been originally) by using compressible mastic seals[1].  The architectural and historic significance of the Victorian glass tiles was prioritized over the use of more energy-efficient substitutes, such as double glazed panes or secondary glazing. This preference is not so clear-cut in generic historic buildings, but I feel that it is justifiable in such an awesome building.

oxford museum

M Peckett in Parle 2013c

Electronic resources

Beard Construction (2013) ‘Glass roof restoration for iconic Natural History Museum’, http://www.beard-construction.co.uk/nathistmuseumnews.html?zoom_highlight=oxford+museum+natural+history. Page consulted 19 January 2014.

Billings, S (2013) ‘A blur of activity’, http://www.darkenednotdormant.wordpress.com/2013/11/19/a-blur-of-activity/. Page consulted 19 January 2014.

Changeworks (nd.) ‘Tenement Fact Sheet: 2 Draught proofing of doors and windows, and between floorboards; secondary and double glazing,’ http://www.changeworks.org.uk/uploads/TFS_02.pdf. Page consulted 19 January 2014.

English Heritage (2007) ‘List entry: The University Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum’, http://list.english-heritage.org.uk/resultsingle.aspx?uid=1081534. Page consulted 19 January 2014.

Parle, R (2013a) ‘Raising the roof’, http://darkenednotdormant.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/raising-the-roof/. Page consulted 19 January 2014.

Parle, R (2013b) ‘Roof revelation’, http://darkenednotdormant.wordpress.com/2013/04/16/roof-revelation/. Page consulted 19 January 2014.

Parle, R (2013c) ‘Reports from the rafters’, http://darkenednotdormant.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/reports-from-the-rafters/. Page consulted 19 January 2014.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History (nd.)’Museum closed for refurbishment during 2013’, http://www.oum.ox.ac.uk/visiting/closure.htm ‘. Page consulted 19 January 2014.


Gayle, P (2013) The Oxford Museum of Natural History, radio broadcast, BBC Oxford, 15 January, 6:00am.

[1] Beard Construction 2013; Parle 2013

[1] Purcell architect N Bradley interviewed on Gayle 2013.

[2] English Heritage 2007

[3] Purcell architect N Bradley interviewed on Gayle 2013.

[1] Oxford University Museum of Natural History nd.

[2] Changeworks nd., 1

The ambiguity of ownership of War Memorials

2014 marks the centenary of the start of the First World War and forms the focus of the heritage sector’s output this year; expect exhibitions, digital letters from the trenches and educational programmes galore.

A renewed focus also brings to the fore a number of questions about the numerous monuments dedicated to the people, places and events linked to a particular moment in time. By these I refer to the stone cenotaphs, obelisks, crosses and plaques characteristic of any British town.

Why such monuments were erected is dissertation fodder, but it hardly seems surprising that a nation and continent changing conflict found a publicly accessible and unifying manifestation of a shared experience, and that those lost in the process found a place of immortalisation; ‘their name liveth forevermore’.

Weathered and eroded relief carving of the armed forces.

Weathered and eroded relief carving of the armed forces.

Who erected the memorials? As a reflection of the war that touched everyone, the majority were funded through public subscription, with temporary committees established to steer the construction.

Who has ownership of war memorials? Who indeed. Some have undergone a formal transfer process of ownership but evidence can be difficult to trace. This is something that I have been struggling with whilst I carry out visual appraisals of the monuments in my local area, making a record of their condition. Clear ownership seems to equate to accepted responsibility and well maintained monuments. Even as little as removing decaying litter, Remembrance Day debris and leaves prevents the erosion of fabric, and the simple removal of moss growth allays more serious damage to the stone.

Many memorials do not have clear ownership, and whilst the Local Authorities’ Powers Act 1923 enables the local authority to intervene with maintenance and repair it does not oblige them to, meaning that monuments are at the mercy of council budgets. You see the problem.

Dedicated by the St. John's Ambulance Brigade

Dedicated by the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade

This muddy problem is not one that I am prepared to wrangle with and solve at present. Instead I wonder, who should take ownership of responsibility? And do war memorials hold enough relevance to warrant the considerable sums of money needed to ensure monitoring and repairs?

Concerning the latter, strong attachments to both World Wars are keenly felt, with many of the UK population only a generation or two away from the events. Family stories naturally pass down, which are nurtured and contextualized by the education system.

The consequences of the World Wars shaped our modern code of ethics and politics, and fire debates (the Geneva Convention, anyone?). Put simply, we are still learning from these landmark conflicts, be it informing a sense of individual identity or of our international identity as a nation.

War is felt in the conscience of the population. This was illustrated by the uproar generated by an incident in 2009 in which a student drunkenly relieved himself on the city centre war memorial. In fact, I was put to task surveying the memorials in anticipation of heightened public interest around the centenary.

The monuments embody a powerfully emotive topic, particularly as British servicemen have lost their lives in subsequent and ongoing campaigns. How fitting for our stiff upper lip to be undone and set on high in stone; carved wreaths and hopes that ‘may they rest in peace’.

And how odd to imagine an English town without the ubiquitous soldier with rifle reversed, so successfully have they merged into our townscapes. For this reason I find it hard to believe that an attitude of deliberate neglect and decline will be applied to some memorials for the sake of optimum care for a few – no man gets left behind.

Here I return to the question of where responsibility should lie. Like so many other locally and nationally cherished historic assets, the buck falls with local authorities and the likes of the HLF and English Heritage. But public funding is stretched to the limit, and this reality has not been kind to the heritage sector. Is the answer then, as heritage discourse is increasingly noting, to discover ways to encourage the general public into action?

As ever, I have posed a question only to bring up more, something that I will attempt to curve, slightly (a lecturer told me today that writing is a creative process and I’m inclined to agree – ‘Write. Write anything’ she said.) It’s good to thinking about such a problem though. Who knows, one day my questioning might result in a solution that’s acted upon.

Inthepress: Hidden Spaces feature

Behind facades.


Hidden Spaces Feature

Today saw the release of the second, and final, part of Associated Architects Hidden Spaces feature in the Birmingham Post. The two twelve page pull-out installments have offered readers a fresh look at some of the well-known architectural features of the city. Ranging from a Cold War bunker tucked away beneath the city to the Big Brum clock tower at the Council House.

Jack Tasker, Marketing Manager for Associated Architects, said “We’re so proud of the feature. It’s been incredibly interesting working with the Post to uncover and shed some light on the unknown and hidden architecture of the city. Hopefully these articles will spark debate regarding the use and future of the buildings in question.”

You can read the online versions here

Hidden Spaces_Birm Post

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Relics #3: The possessed.

He told himself he was too pampered, too spoilt by civilization, ever to inhabit nature again; and that made him sad in a not unpleasant bitter-sweet sort of way. After all, he was a Victorian. We could not expect him to see what we are only just beginning – and with so much more knowledge and lessons of existentialist philosophy at our disposal – to realize ourselves: that the desire to hold and the desire to enjoy are mutually destructive. His statement to himself should have been, “I possess this now, therefore I am happy; instead of what it so Victorianly was: “I cannot possess this forever, and therefore I am sad”.    The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Chapter 10, John Fowles (1969)

Carpe diem (or YOLO if you’re Rihanna) – a timeless mode of thought?

Arguably modern attitudes to historical artefacts remain Victorian; fragility, rarity and legacy count for much. Or is it just human nature to infer a state of sanctity?

Does protection prevent real enjoyment by limiting handling, transportation, wider inspection? A missed opportunity for closer contact with something that has experienced the past and is witnessing the present.

This is well-trodden ground, and something that is rightly being challenged, if only for the purpose of pushing more ingenious ways of “engagement”.

But what interests me is when this sanctity is divined? When does something pass into the realms of relicdom?

I pondered this recently with the death of my aunt (bastard cancer).

The inevitable divvying up of possessions followed, although to a lesser degree, my aunt having completed much of this task herself. The horror of accepting (jewels, coffee sets), I cannot accurately describe.

My mother has largely been the recipient of clothes; quite literally stepping into her big sister’s shoes.

The rest? “Charity shop, I s’pose”, shrugged my uncle. Then, “They don’t suit me”. Finally, “They’re just things”.

On a surface level possessions, artefacts, are not a person, so what do they matter?

They matter to living memory and future interpretation. Providing a link between events, conversations, encounters, whilst providing the scope for future persons to guess at these.

1967 book graffiti

1967 book graffiti

I am an acute mixture of these. Having lost my dad at a young age I can’t always be certain what is fact (my genuine memories) or fiction (what I have been told since). I’m not saying that these are mutually exclusive, but the uncertainty is infuriating.

Yet my response to objects is something apart. There is no doubt.

This is his sketch, unearthed, albeit from 1967 – I see him drawing, pen in hand.

The worn patch on the right-side arm of a chair – there, he’s resting his head in his right hand whilst watching telly.

For this reason, I value objects. I cherish them. Things that have meaning to just a few. But I don’t claim exclusivity. The potential for future speculation, wildly inaccurate guesses, thrills me.

The Chinese Tea Ceremony

National Tea Museum, Hangzhou

National Tea Museum, Hangzhou

Little cups pass between us.

Wait, don’t wait, cleanse, now go.

Pause. Pause again. Don’t raise an eyebrow.

A terrible pun, but you feel like a mug. Really I do too.

The Party paid for this marble room, the fixed grin of our server, the mimic garden courtyard, the words on the wall, the endless plush fields, the sun in the sky…?

Hangzhou and nanjing 137Somewhere in Beijing, a report stamped ‘success’ is filed.

Hangzhou and nanjing 110


Taking a look at the past, from above

Heritage Calling

Regina Papachlimitzou is the Activity Team Support Officer for Britain from Above, and joined the team in February 2013. The project is a four year Heritage Lottery funded project run by English Heritage and the Royal Commissions on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland and Wales, and involves the conservation, digitisation and cataloguing of 95,000 negatives from the Aerofilms collection. 

Imagine you are a Britain from Above cataloguer looking at an Aerofilms image. There are some things you may already know about the image, such as when it was taken; where it was taken; what it shows.

Here are some things you can’t know: in Stevenage, there used to be a cinema with a leaky roof and if you were braving one of the twelve balcony seats, you needed an umbrella. The wooden lifeguard boats on the beach below St George’s Church in Cullercoats provided great shelter for…

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Only connect…

The Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Value of Heritage for Society (Faro Convention 2005) identifies cultural heritage as a ‘resource’, but often it has a less utilitarian emphasis when met on an emotional level and touches upon the intangible aspects of heritage that feature more and more in academic and professional discourse.

“To them Howards End was a house: they could not know that to her it had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir.” Chapter 11, Howards End, E.M.Forster

Taken from https://i1.wp.com/

A wily estate agent might well promote a ‘character property’. What does this mean? Simply that it is old? That it is unique?

There is a house for me that has a character, a personality, much like E.M. Forster’s Howards End. My Grandmother’s house.

It is a straightforward case on paper. Grade II* listed, multi-period, original features.

For me? It is a story teller (tales of where priests hid), a trickster (a symphony of nocturnal creaks and groans enough to send even a teenager scuttling to her grandmother’s bed), a secret keeper (mis-spelt faxes folded inside Catherine Cooksons) and more than anything a teacher.

Taken from https://sarahpips.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/e9cb3-img_3539.jpg

I learnt that:

a. 1960s flower power and golden velvet are perfectly matched;

b. Glen Miller and Shirley Bassey accompanied by wild knees, twirling arms and kicking ankles = “the girl who danced through the war”;

c. smoking is an individual art form (clipped bird-like, long sucks. hollow cheeks, sideways mid-speech).

“Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly but to an afterlife in the city of ghosts, while from others the spirit slips before the body perishes”. Chapter 31, Howards End, E.M. Forster

My Grandmother died in 2006. I saw the house for sale online the other day. – No lumpy horse-hair chairs. No flower power. No orange crayon graffiti by a child twenty years long gone. – Faux fur rugs. Neutral walls. Candles in the hearth where once settled fag ash, twisted chocolate liqueur wrappers, and embers. I’m mourning.

Endurance and happenstance

The voice of history, of course, is composite. Many voices; all the voices that have managed to get themselves heard. Some louder than others, naturally…thus shall I abide by the conventions of history. I shall respect the laws of evidence. Of truth, whatever that may be. But truth is tied to word, to print, to the testimony of the page. Moments shower away; the days of our lives vanish utterly, more insubstantial than if they had been invented. Fiction can seem more enduring than reality. Pierre on the field of battle, the Bennet girls at their sewing, Tess on the threshing machine – all these are nailed down for ever, on the page and in a million heads…And when you and I talk about history we don’t mean what actually happened, do we? The cosmic chaos of everywhere, all time? We mean the tidying up of this into books, the concentration of the benign historical eye upon years and places and persons. History unravels; circumstances, following their natural inclination, prefer to remain ravelled. Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively

Taken from https://i2.wp.com/www.themanbookerprize.com/sites/default/files/images/books/1987%20Penelope%20Lively%20Moon%20Tiger.jpg

Ancient voices still ring down, to be poured over, analyzed to the nth degree. But we lean on happenstance.

Cicero, influential upon contemporaries and historical figures alike, augmented by the sheer number of letters, speeches and philosophies to remain, barely tarnished by time, folly, or persecution.

Pliny the Younger, AD79, Vesuvius. The right place, the right time, and the inclination to capture the details.

How lucky are we? Best to look on what we have than on the lost.

But endurance goes further than physical remains, it lies in the ability to remain relevant.

So then, is Ovid set to outlast Tacitus and Suetonius?

Metamorphosis. Very apt. The Pygmalion myth especially; the sculptor reshapes the ivory to create the perfect woman, just as the myth itself has been reshaped since.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau gave her, the statue, a name in 1762, ‘Galatea’.

Taken from https://i2.wp.com/posterwire.com/wp-content/uploads/my_fair_lady.jpg

George Bernard Shaw probably springs to the modern mind. No stone, but certainly the myth. The shifting priorities of western readership; no longer logical for a writer to create a passive female part, lacking an identity.

Stone-like similes and metaphors for Carol Ann Duffy’s Pygmalion’s Bride though, who is “like ivory” and has “stone-cool lips”. Worked in are now common phrases, “stone-deaf”, reflecting the Ovidian myth. Yet, like Bernard Shaw, no literal statue, but a live body with stone-like qualities, “my marbled eyes”. The implication, that this is a reaction to her Pygmalion; she “played statue”.

Duffy, a modern feminist, is the antithesis of Ovid, a misogynist by way of ancient attitudes. Whereas the caressing of Pygmalion generates life within Ovid’s statue “beneath his touch”, in Duffy’s poem it is the very fact that “he squeezed, he pressed” which revolts her into rigidity.

The metamorphosis of Ovid’s themes by Duffy is a testament to the myth’s capability for endurance. Its literary legacy lies not in the fine details, but in its adaptive capacity. Ovid’s statue has no name, speaks no words, but this enigma has allowed others to explore their own versions of the myth; it has prevented the myth from dying and enabled it to grow.

Taken from https://i0.wp.com/www.ac-grenoble.fr/lycee/diois/Latin/IMG/jpg/1939_Paul_Delvaux_Pygmalion.jpg

Delvaux’s Pygmalion