science and sensibility
Sir Neil Cossons is updating the Science Museum with the new Wellcome Wing - an action which augurs well for his forthcoming role as head ofEnglish Heritage
Exploiting links with other organisations also helps.Next year all the South Ken institutions wil host the British Association for the Advancement ofScience.’The texture ofthe fabric ofAlbertopolis is becoming finer,pushing us closer together and making us closer intellectually,’Cossons explains.The Wellcome wing uses a site earmarked for the Science Museum’s western wing in 1911.Imperial has two new buildings under way and the Natural History Museum is constructing its Spirit Building.The process started shortly after Cossons became director ofthe Science Museum in 1986,when ‘for the first time in living memory,and living memory around here is about 102 years,the directors ofthe Science, V&Aand Natural History Museums got together.’
It also gives an insight into his plans for English Heritage,which he knows well as a former commissioner and long-term server on committees.’We need to take Albertopolis and see it happening on a national scale’.It’s a model for the joined-up thinking which the government is so keen to promote but cannot create.Cossons has a vision ofvarious organisations working together to ‘re-calibrate heritage towards the future [and recognise] that something we want to take with us is as much about tomorrow as the past’.’We will be very close to Stuart Lipton’at CABE and ‘English Nature at the other end ofthe scale’,as well as the National Trust,’we have so much to gain from being complementary’.
Revitalising landscape is essential,’as much as anything as a setting for new architecture’.
He continues,’We must take English Heritage’s message and interpret it in terms ofthe next century.We must make sure people like Tony Blair understand that.
Their understanding ofheritage is potentially very one-dimensional’.
Cossons is quick to praise his predecessor at EH ,Sir Jocelyn Stevens,incidentally another Albertopolis alumnus as he was rector ofthe RCA .’Jocelyn saw seminal opportunities,whichif pulled offwould change people’s perceptions ofEnglish Heritage’,but anticipates a change ofstyle, ‘at a smaller scale,the level ofsubstructure’.Why,he asks,do the ticket booths at EH sites ‘look like garden sheds?’It has become ‘a cliche which defines our idea ofheritage’ when publications and signage are ‘light years ahead’.He is optimistic,to,about the disciplinary divides.Archaeologists are coming out oftheir holes because there is not enough space for them.That is bringing a particular sensibility to the study ofbuildings,which as most ofthe country’s built heritage dates from ‘the English centuries’- the eighteenth,nineteenth and twentieth - inevitably accounts for the bulk ofthe agency’s work.It’s important to ‘square the circle on listing’,because it would help to create a seamless policy towards heritage from the Palaeolithic to the most recent listed buildings.’It’s in our compass but we don’t yet have the practicalities ofhow to do it’.
Complementing these general aims will be his experience as a client the Wellcome Wing.And as it’s a project which itself orientates its venerable institution towards the future,it augurs well for his prospects ofsuccess at English Heritage.