Heritage Consortium PhD student Andrew McTominey (Leeds Beckett University with co-supervision at the University of Huddersfield) reports on the Landmarks 2015: Heritage and History Conference, 15-16 October, organised by the Heritage Lottery Fund-supported Tees Transporter Bridge Visitor Experience Project
[Photograph by Stephen Tierney, http://www.stephentierney.co.uk/the-transporter-bridge-Middlesbrough/, licensed under Creative Commons]
As a new PhD student, my first foray into the wider world of academia came with the Landmarks 2015 Heritage and History Conference, hosted conveniently in my hometown Middlesbrough. Having been at work for only a couple of weeks, I did not present a paper on this occasion, but took the opportunity to immerse myself in a conference culture and enjoy papers from across disciplines including urban history, heritage, art, archival studies, museum studies and architecture.
As a result of the interdisciplinary nature of the conference, several themes emerged from the papers across the two days. One theme was that of urban regeneration and heritage interpretation. Both keynotes, delivered on the first day by Dr Natasha Vall (Teesside University) and on the second by Dr Shane Ewen (Leeds Beckett University), explored themes of recognising urban landmarks and how cities have been regenerated; Natasha Vall focussed on transnational waterside regeneration of cities, how cities have reinvented their watersides from places of disrepute to spaces of urban modernity, whilst Shane Ewen examined landmarks in urban history, offering the examples of fire stations which have largely been regenerated without regard for heritage, and police boxes in Scottish cities which, whilst having for the most part been sold off, have retained their identity as visual heritage landmarks.
Another theme that emerged from the papers was heritage preservation. It is not often the want of historians to look forward, however the recent closure of the steelworks on Teesside, a key aspect of local identity, increased the prominence of this theme. Papers on Teesside’s industrial landmarks, historical building plans, the art of Teesside, the bridges of the area, and the relationship between town halls and civic pride emphasised how key steel making has been not just in providing employment but in building a town and beyond, leaving us with the question of how to reshape a town’s identity. Embracing Teesside’s heritage may be an avenue to explore in the future, with work completed on the renovation of the Transporter Bridge, restoration work to take place on the town hall, and other such ventures as the town aims to become a Capital of Culture in 2025. As Middlesbrough has in the past treated its historic buildings with disregard, embracing its heritage would be a welcome change looking forward.
Whilst many of the papers concentrated on Teesside given the location of the conference, there were also speakers from across the country, including a number of PhD students. Erin Beeston’s paper looked at Liverpool Road Station in Manchester, now the Museum of Science and Industry, and how its reputation as the oldest railway station in the world became fixed in the Mancunian popular imagination, even during a period of neglect. Indeed, it directly helped in the ultimately successful regeneration effort of the station in 1983. Anna Feintuck’s paper explored Edinburgh’s cultural heritage using nineteenth century maps of Gayfield Square, now a much changed cultural space, to take people on walks of the area following the old paths. In creating ‘desire lines’ by repeated walking on the grass, there is a visible link between what was and what is, as such visitors are able to view heritage through time. Two of the later papers examined the landmarks of death: Dr Helen Frisby looked at the evolution of cemeteries and burying rituals and how they interacted with social status, while Professor Hilary Grainger explored crematoria, the ‘invisible landmark’, illustrating through the various architectural designs of crematoria across the North-East how these sites have remained invisible despite their prominence in later twentieth and twenty-first century life.
One of the main lessons I took away from the conference was how successful an interdisciplinary approach to heritage and landmarks can be. Whilst it is simple to realise what a landmark is on a basic level, by approaching them from the perspectives of urban history, heritage studies, architecture and so on, it helps to illuminate landmarks and sites of heritage, a lesson for Teesside going forward. With the closure of the steelworks, it is more important than ever for the area to appreciate and celebrate its industrial heritage in order to shape a post-industrial identity. The way we view our landmarks, locally, nationally and internationally, can help us to view where we are aiming to go. My thanks to Tosh Warwick for organising a great conference, and for supplying us with some truly excellent cake.