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Heritage - taking possession of the present in the name of the past

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Readers of this column who remember my last diatribe against the purchase of Tyntesfield (AJ 5.9.02), the Dallas-sized, known-only-to-locals home to the late Lord Wraxall, will doubtless have hurried home from work to see Dan Cruickshank's rapturous assessment of the treasure house on television the other week.

I say rapturous because the number of 'fantastics', 'incredibles', 'unbelievables', 'wonderfuls', 'remarkables' and other simulated orgasms of polite appreciation let loose in 40 minutes must have exceeded even the generous maxima laid down in the current edition of the Heritage Book of Praise - let alone threatened to breach the boundaries of good taste.

As it was, viewers not only had to put up with the tiresome repetition of attempts to raise a smile with references to the 'oddness' or 'irony' of all this grandeur having come about as a result of a heavy investment in the 19thcentury guano trade - shipping bird droppings to England at the cost of the lives of many Chinese slave workers - but they were also treated to the sight of our genial presenter riffling through the late Lord Wraxall's aristocratic wardrobe, seizing upon the top hat he wore to funerals and impertinently trying it on for size.Whoa there, Dan!

But, on second thoughts, yes, go on, for in that tiny spontaneous piece of play acting, Cruickshank gave a rare insight into the real meaning and purpose of the heritage industry, which is to take possession of the present in the name of the past, much as in olden times an invading army might sack a captured town, or an Indian chief don the uniform of a slain enemy as a symbolic act of conquest.

I say take possession of the present in the name of the past, and not the past in the name of the present, because the odd thing about all heritage decisions is that, whatever they are about, they are all made in the present. They have to be, because the actual appearance of their subjects is so important and the underwriting of their value so dependent on current realities. Because of this, the buildings of the City of London, for instance, seen in heritage terms, are no more than settings, like the backdrop in a theatre. The action that takes place before the scenery is immaterial. If a stage falls vacant because an actor has died, he or she can easily be replaced, heralding the opening of a new play.

In heritage eyes, Lord Wraxall's house was a theatre and he was such an actor, a character who died suddenly. The heritage industry responded swiftly, raising by means that are almost past belief the best part of £25 million in a few weeks. With this war chest and a quick bit of spot listing, they drove off whatever private sector interest there ever had been in Tyntesfield, and bought the house and its overflowing contents to star in a new play that would owe nothing to the previous owners' performance as a mystery aristocrat.

This time there would be a different hierarchy, an occupation army of thousands, visitors, staff and members of the cast. The guano story would cease to be an 'odd' sidelight and would instead become a full-scale public confessional with evocative pictures of slaving Chinese, loading ships with guano until they drop.

There might even be an apology to the People's Republic of China for the whole pre-synthesis fertiliser trade, out of which Lord Wraxall's predecessors did so well.

What there would not be is any acknowledgment that the 'saving' of Tyntesfield is a thoroughly Post-Modern project based on tourist and heritage calculations. Big car parks, gate money, bums on seats, opening hours yes, and even hats on heads.

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