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Comment: What future for Scotland's past?

Peter Drummond argues against any potential move to merge the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland with Historic Scotland

Many architects, particularly those working in the heritage sector, will remember in 1998 when the government decided that English Heritage (EH) and the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHME) should be merged.

The two organisations would became a single lead body for the identification, documentation and conservation of the historic environment. 

On the face of it this seemed a logical step – one body responsible for identifying the most important structures and the best way of preserving them.  Operation savings could be achieved, particularly in areas like HR and administration.

Alas - and at the risk of losing some friends at EH -, it wasn’t quite the grand idea that some thought it might be. RCHME was never fully integrated into the work of EH, with the National Monuments Record (NMR) separate from the other EH archives.  Its research and recording programme lost emphasis in favour of other priorities. 

Indeed more recently the NMR has been effectively split in two with the archive joining properties in care and the former database joining designations. 

For those who doubt just how much things have changed then look no further than the 2011-2015 Corporate Plan.  Notwithstanding some impressive statistics dotted around this worthy tome, tucked away in a corner is a clear statement that ‘a severe cut to our government grant will see a further deterioration in the condition of the National Heritage Collection’.  Reference to the NMR seems to be limited to interpretation of EH’s historic sites.  Active involvement seems very limited.

But why should I as chairman of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland raise this issue?  Because someone in the Scottish Government has been thinking much the same way as their Westminster counterparts did 13 years ago. 

An ‘options appraisal’ has recently been announced for the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS). 

Buried in the small print is an interesting view on where this is all going:
The particular challenges brought about by the current economic situation, reflected in the Spending Review have prompted the need to look afresh at how best to ensure the long term sustainability of RCAHMS’ work….Because of the commitment to preserve RCAHMS’ functions, they are one very few organisations that have not seen a reduction in their budget of £4.01m per annum over the spending review period. However that spending commitment has prompted questions, which the review will consider, around how best to ensure the long term sustainability of RCAHMS work within a reducing public purse.

Historic Scotland (HS), which is undertaking the review on behalf of Ministers, is quite clear that there will be a full programme of stakeholder consultation.  There are no preconceived ideas, no overarching agenda. 

Nevertheless the elephant in the room is the subject of much private discussion in heritage circles; there is a real risk that RCAHMS may find itself in an arranged marriage with HS.  The same arguments used in the 1990s may be redeployed, perhaps dressed in a kilt for good measure.  And the fear is that it will have the same outcome.

The ideal solution is for RCAHMS to remain a wholly independent body

RCAHMS does absolutely sterling work.  It holds a much wider collection of material than its erstwhile English counterpart, serving as the principle archiving and research body for a range of material from archaeological records to architects’ drawings, from undersea remains to designed landscapes.  This extends beyond a simple passive catalogue into research and analysis.  It has an educational outreach programme second to none, engaging with an impressively broad cross-section of the community.  The commission works closely with groups in the cities and the very remotest parts of the Highlands alike.  Canmore and SCRAN are excellent online digital archives.

The ideal solution is for RCAHMS to remain a wholly independent body.  Even if the savings were to come to 20 per cent, less than £1million per year would be returned to the public purse.  It is worth this to have a high quality, independent and pro-active national archiving body covering not just the survey and analysis of our built heritage.

If amalgamation is unavoidable, however, I don’t think even HS itself would argue that it has much to offer in the way of best practice in managing and making available historic records - whatever its record in the management of other historic things.  If the commission has to come under someone else’s wing, might it not be considerably better if it were someone who understood its unrivalled holdings and what their management and access entailed?  Like becoming part of the newly established National Records of Scotland?  That would place it within an agency which is professionally and I would suggest is pretty well managed right to the very top.  This would bring all such Scottish archives within one central, dedicated, expert body where it could continue to flourish.

Peter Drummond, National Chairman, Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland

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