We’re used to thinking historical plaques tell us about the past. There’s clearly no disputing this. That said, whilst working on Open Plaques I’ve gradually come to realise that the converse is equally true. They’re also about the here and now, and our shared future. This shift in perspective has been brought home to me lately by the circumstances facing four plaques – and the works commemorated through them – in the UK and Ireland.
No one expects plaques to be around forever. English Heritage – with a focus on preservation and the long-term – say their currently manufactured plaques for London are estimated to remain in good condition for at least 100 years. But quite apart from the longevity guaranteed by their materials, some plaques suddenly disappear, while others exist on a knife-edge in fragile circumstances…
Case 1: George Boole – Cork, Ireland
Not a household name granted, but you may have heard of Boolean algebra or indeed Boolean logic – the theory that underpins all digital computing. In short, if it wasn’t for mathematician and scientist George Boole (born in Lincoln, England and resident of Cork city in Ireland from 1849 when he became Professor of Mathematics at University College Cork until his death in 1864) – you might not be reading this, nor I writing here. Humankind may have not landed on the moon. I could go on…
The father of modern computing’s former home in Cork where this plaque is situated has been neglected for many years. Then in February 2012, despite being on the Cork City register of protected structures (which means that, by rights, it cannot be demolished) the building has been put up for sale to developers. Yes those developers – the commercial entities who build private housing, car-parks, shopping centres and suchlike.
Cork science lecturer and blogger Eoin Lettice has the full story on his Communicate Science blog, and is assiduoulsy tracking the treatment of Boole’s home and scientific heritage in previous and no doubt future posts. The question posed in his blog remains unanswered – is Irish heritage now for sale to the highest bidder?
Case 2: Miles Coverdale – York Minster, York
The spread of literacy beyond the priviledged few in Britain was due in part to the translation of the Bible from Latin into English, and under Cromwell this became a material reality within reach of the masses, even if they couldn’t all fully avail of it. For that, in large part, we have Bishop of Exeter Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) to thank.
This plaque – marking the former site of York Minster Library where copies of Coverdale’s translations of the Bible and the Book Of Common Prayer were kept until 1820 – has met an even more drastic fate. It was recently stolen, yet another loss in the spate of plaque thefts sweeping the UK and elsewhere whereby metal markers are swiped by criminals who sell them on for scrap and the objects are melted down and recycled.
Credit goes to @HistoryNeedsYou for alerting us to the Coverdale case. Other headline-grabbing thefts apart from plaques have included the massive Barabara Hepworth scuplture ‘Two Forms (Divided Circle)’ valued at £500,000 taken overnight from Dulwich Park in south London on 19th December 2011.
It’s no exaggeration to say this crime-wave is literally destroying public culture. But should all metal-based art and markers in public spaces now be put under lock and guard; and if not, what is the right response? Perhaps The Londonist or some other publication with bite and an active community of readers could host a public discussion on this. We urgently need some workable ideas.
Case 3: Luke Howard – Tottenham, London
Luke Howard is one of those characters surfaced by our project whom I’d never heard of before, but even before realising his plaque was at risk he was already ingrained in the Open Plaques team’s collective memory by way of his delightful role – ‘namer of clouds’. The home of this key figure in the history of meterology has seen better times.
His plaque was put up by English Heritage but the building at 7 Bruce Grove, in North London is in a sorry state. The bigger picture revealed when it was photographed in 2009 shows it surrounded by hoardings with part of the roof missing and the structure in general disrepair. We don’t have the full story with this one, but maybe this blog post will help unearth it.
What this case shows is that getting a plaque – even one on a listed building as the sign visible on Google Streetview proves – is still no guarantee that a building will be maintained and looked after. Maybe there is work going on to restore it… we will see what transpires.
Case 4: The Keskidee building – Islington, London
On 7th April 2011 this building received the plaque that it had been nominated for, and then voted for, by the public in the annual Islington People’s Plaques scheme run by the Borough Council. It was the site of Britain’s first ever arts and cultural centre for the black community opened in 1971, and also played a starring role as the location in which the video for Bob Marley’s song ‘Is This Love’ was filmed in 1978.
The contrast of the happy celebrations pictured above at the unveiling with the turn of events exactly 11 months later last week couldn’t be starker. Islington Council Heritage Services contacted us on Friday to alert us to the news that the building commemorated in this plaque had been gutted in a fire [pictures] on Thursday 8th March. The plaque, remarkably, remains intact and unscathed on the exterior front wall, but the building itself is largely a shell. What caused the blaze isn’t yet determined.
You can see a clip of the Bob Marley video shot inside and see more prictures of the building after the blaze in the Islington Gazzette news story. We interviewed two of the council’s Heritage Services team late last year about the scheme, now in its third year. The People’s Plaques initiative continues to flourish, with global voting now open for 2012′s shortlist until 10th April, despite the harsh reversal of fortune for built heritage revealed in this plaque’s story.
The next chapter…
What exactly has or will happen to each of these four plaques and heritage flashpoints remains uncertain. The cases illustrate how public heritage depends not only on effective planning controls and preservation funds, but also on a social contract (for want of a better term) that allows them to be public in the first place.
Any number of parties can break or threaten that contract – as we have seen. The moot question is whether we’re collectively resigned to attacks on and erosion of public history, or whether we can do anything re-animate, support and defend it. Do we perhaps need to re-frame how we think about and sustain the whole concept of heritage?
If you know of any plaques at risk – or that have already disappeared – let us know here in the comments, by email or via Twitter. Equally, if you have photographs of missing plaques, please consider donating them to our online collection, which in such unfortunate cases, is also a digital archive.
[PHOTO CREDITS: With thanks and acknowledgement to the following - Boole by John Collins; Coverdale by Le Monde1 on Flickr (full copyright retained); Howard by Jane Parker on Flickr (full copyright retained); Keskidee by Islington Borough Heritage Services]