‘Is the elephant in the room?’: on what to do with old forts, and who should do it


The New Uses for Old Bunkers series is currently in abeyance – I needed a breather, and to concentrate on bricks, rocks and earth. However, I couldn’t pass up this offer of a NUFOB #30.

The series was/is about how rudimentary concrete defensive structures find new physical and/or symbolic lives, and I’m rather shocked to see that I clocked up accounts of 30 different types of reuse over the last 12 months. There are a few more to come; one day. But for today here’s a guest piece written by my SHU research student colleague, Carolyn Gibbeson.

Like me Carolyn is a hybrid – part property professional, part culture buff. Carolyn kindly relented to my recent heavy hinting that it would be great if she would attend last month’s Fortress Study Group conference on the conservation and reuse of abandoned forts. In the essay that follows Carolyn reflects on the absence of developers and their funders  at events such as these, and I agree that it is odd that heritage conferences can be self-contained in this way. However, this point runs in two directions, for heritage professionals are also an absent presence in developers’ and funders’ meetings.

These are two worlds that are alien to each other and, as Carolyn observes, they strangely manage to co-exist in parallel. Occasionally there are awkward collisions (the development stopped in its tracks by the unearthing of an archaeological artefact springs to mind) but for most of the time –  for both the heritage people and for the developer/funder people  – the ‘other’ lot remain glimpsed at a distance, as a beast whose intention and world can only be guessed at. Both communities regard their semi-mythical wandering beast with nervous respect, for if their beast were to venture into town it would seriously disrupt their normal ways of framing and doing. And for both camps there is another wandering beast that they both fear: the public, and the unpredictability of its emotion, tastes and place attachment.

But in all cases they  secretly like having these beasts, as bogeymen stationed comfortably in the half-light of ‘arm’s length’, readily co-optable into instructive folk tales to scare the inexperienced with and/or to dampen the zeal of the over exuberant.

As Carolyn concludes, we all need to work harder to get all three of these elephants in the same room (except she doesn’t call them elephants). And additionally, it seems to me – if we did that – we might also be surprised at how much smaller these beasts are close-up.


New Uses for Old Bunkers #30 – a guest post by Carolyn Gibbeson

As someone who usually researches the re-use of large Victorian municipal buildings (hospitals and asylums in particular), it was with interest, but some trepidation that I decided to attend the second Fortifications at Risk symposium held at the beginning of March. There are in fact, more similarities between Victorian asylums and fortifications than you might originally imagine, particularly for a researcher interested in people’s perceptions of, and emotional attachment to unusual heritage buildings. Both are usually buildings designed with a specific purpose in mind that usually makes it tricky to convert or re-use them. Both also have difficult or problematic connotations.

The symposium examined the conservation of fortifications and their reuse over the two days. Many of the examples showcased were museums or cultural and educational centres with only a few with more commercial reuses demonstrated (predominantly residential schemes).  What occurred to me as I listened to the various talks, was something that has occurred to me at each similar conferences I have been to:  the fact that we were discussing the reuse of buildings, property if you will, and yet there were no representatives from either the funding institutions or property and development companies.  In a presentation outlining the conversion of a military fort into houses, it was suggested that funding conditions set by the banks and lenders on schemes are highly risk averse- you have to have a fixed price contract for the works which often poses an issue for heritage redevelopments as you do not always know what you will find on a project until work has started.  Solutions were being looked at as to how this could be achieved but what struck me as odd, was that, if indeed we were having a discussion about possible reuses of historic fortifications, and by extension historic sites, why did we not have the very institutions present that might be able to help answer these questions?

Also, the vast majority of reused and preserved fortifications that were discussed were reused as museums or cultural and education centres.  Just from this observation, it could be suggested, as Samuel argues in Theatres of Memory (1994), that the heritage preservation sector is seeking to turn the country into a gigantic museum. Given the amount of history that is “contained” within Britain, together with the current fascination for preserving our historic buildings (BBC, English Heritage, 2013), this could indeed be a valid observation.  It was noted at one point during the symposium that “perhaps we ought to leave some places where people can go and discover them in their own way”. In conjunction with who is involved in discussing the reuse of historic buildings, it should also be considered whose heritage we are seeking to protect and for what purpose?

Smith (2006) argues that, what she terms the authorised heritage discourse (AHD):

“focuses attention on aesthetically pleasing material objects, sites and places that the current generation ‘must’ care for, protect and revere so that they may be passed to nebulous future generations for their “education” and to forge a sense of common identity based on the past”.  

What this ‘education’ is to be however, is also determined by the discourse. This question arose briefly at the symposium with the question of what stories we want to tell about these sites being asked in respect of a former mustard gas factory that made mustard gas shells during the First World War. This seemed to be an uncomfortable former use that needed to be decided upon – do we use it as an education feature or gloss over the uncomfortable confrontation it brings us in the more difficult aspects of our history?

Bennett in The Birth of the Museum (1995), examines Allen’s study of the former penal colony of Port Arthur and the rebuilding of the buildings there, arguing that in preventing its deterioration, lessons of the failure of the convict system that could have been drawn from the site’s ruination were erased. It can be argued that recognition of plural meanings sits awkwardly with the established heritage discourse which holds the view that there are experts who hold the authority to recognise the values intrinsic to heritage phenomena and that those who hold the authority seek to promote uses and values that they believe should be promoted or to promote “the experience and values of the elite social classes” (Smith, 2006:30).

The AHD and those who within it hold the authority as “experts” within the heritage protection environment may be a reason why “others” are not invited or do not participate in the discussions on heritage protection and reuse.  The idea of those who did not belong to the traditional heritage organisations but who worked on, volunteered or used and explored the sites was touched on. Comments such as “we’re working with the owner” (English Heritage) could be interpreted in the sense that it is a mutual cooperation or that those “working with the owner” are doing so to “educate” the owner in the error of his ways. The recent English Heritage programme, Heritage! The Battle for Britain’s past exclaimed, following the introduction of heritage protection legislation to protect our historic sites and buildings, “at last, the freedom to do what you liked with your property was over”. This freedom to do what you want with your property was what the Victorians sought to safeguard in the early days of heritage protection as they felt this was an essential British right. Now heritage protection is afforded more protection than property ownership and it is this protection is often cited as one of the reasons why property developers do like redeveloping heritage buildings because of the protections that are seen as onerous and costly (English Heritage, 2013).

The “other” was also highlighted in the form of other users of heritage sites including ghost hunters and volunteers. Ghost hunters seemed to be viewed as a source of income for those sites whose use was a museum, tourist attraction or educational site yet, and this is purely a personal observation, they seemed to be viewed as a bit of a joke or something that was funny in an otherwise serious business. Yet it is surely their heritage too and how they choose to interpret it just happens to be different to what is considered the ‘norm’ (or what the AHD prescribes if you follow Smith’s thinking). Volunteers were seen as helpful and sometimes the only way to get sites back up and running but again there seemed sometimes to be the view that they were ok but they did not understand certain things about the building or how it worked and it was down to those in charge to put them right or make sure they were on the right lines.

It is not however, only those who seek to preserve Britain’s heritage and the heritage discourse that could be argued to only focus on a particular aspect of Britain’s heritage, Edensor in his work on industrial ruins argues that developers are also guilty of remembering these places for middle class inhabitants and as places for businesses, shoppers and tourists (2005:131). Perhaps in the eyes of both those who seek to preserve and conserve heritage sites, and the property developers, each side is the “other”, each holding an agenda or motivation that they view as being in opposition to what each party is seeking to achieve. However, I would argue that if we genuinely want to preserve Britain’s heritage we need to be involving every aspect of the community and all stakeholders to enable meaningful discussion about what people actual want, what is achievable and to promote a culture of communication, rather than what seems at times to be a culture of exclusion and perhaps even suspicion.


BBC and English Heritage, (2013), Heritage! The Battle for Britain’s Past,

Bennett, T (1995) The Birth of the Museum, history, theory, politics, Routledge, Abingdon

English Heritage (2013) Heritage Works, English Heritage, London

Edensor, T (2005) Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality, Berg, Oxford

Samuel, R (1994) Theatres of Memory, Verso, London

Smith, L (2006) Uses of Heritage, Routledge, London

Picture Credit: Spitbank Fort, Portsmouth by andyroo74 at http://www.flickr.com/photos/16164447@N03/7841622230/in/set-72157631200002534/

About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

One Response to ‘Is the elephant in the room?’: on what to do with old forts, and who should do it

  1. dianajhale says:

    Some excellent discussion of issues here and very topical still, even though the discussion has been going on for so long already! Robert Hewison in 1987 was one of the first, in his book ‘The Heritage Industry’.

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