Revisiting “A Future for the Past: The Past as an Asset for the Future”

By Danielle

“We need a sense of human in hostile, post-industrial communities.”

The WV Humanities Council, with help from WVU professor emeritus Dr. Emory Kemp, brought Sir Neil Cossons to northern WV for three speaking engagements in honor of National Historic Preservation Month to speak about historic preservation of industrial sites in England.  He gave some fascinating insight into how England preserves its industrial heritage and uses it for tourism purposes.  This is a topic that definitely hit home to West Virginians attending the lecture.

Cossons has an extremely impressive career.  He is the former Chairman of English Heritage, the equivalent to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and was knighted in 1994 for his work with museums and historic preservation in England.  He was the first director of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, a World Heritage site in Shropshire encompassing 10 museums collectively telling the story of the Industrial Revolution.  He is the former director of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and the Science Museum in London.  He is currently Pro-Provost and Chairman of the Council of the Royal College of Art in London.  So what did this esteemed professional have to say?

“Every day living imbues a sense of places.”

Cossons gave multiple examples of how the past is captured in practical ways in England.  A list of sites include Cornwall, an old tin mining town; Nelson, a former weaving town; and Liverpool, a city suffering from declining population.  The industries that were once the defining jobs in many of these communities have died and these towns have to deal with unemployment just like we do in West Virginia.  However, all these places had a striking common feature for heritage tourism purposes that is not seen as often in the West Virginia.

Each place has preserved not only the important industrial sites, but also the machinery and skilled trades for making commodities such as bobbins, rope, wrought iron, and silver.  Major factories and machinery have been preserved as tourist attractions, and skilled workers continue to create the goods that once defined the town – although on a much smaller scale.  Instead of employing hundreds, these factories might have a dozen workers.  Not all the machinery is used, but that does not mean that the building has been demolished and with it the machinery.  Tourists are drawn to these crafts-places to see the skilled workers in action and to purchase the items they created.  Tourists also enjoy cultural foods and music while on their visits.   Where are some places this could happen in West Virginia?  The Labelle Nail Factory in Wheeling is one place that came to my mind.

“Demolishing a building leaves a scar in the heart of the community.”

In many of these declining towns, vacant buildings are also a problem, as we in West Virginia know very well.  Cossons discussed how local municipalities became involved in not only promoting heritage tourism but also in mothballing historic structures and housing for future use.  In England, they not only preserve sites for future generations to remember their history but also to redevelop it.  Mothballing is the process of temporarily closing a building to protect it from weather and secure it from vandals.  Mothballing is an effective preservation tool for historic buildings without a productive use and funding.  The purposes of mothballing historic structures include preserving the historic property and context of a town/community and to save the site until a new investor and new plans arises for the property.  Although our current generation might not have a use for the property, future generations might.  Additionally, mothballing may not be a viable option for every local/county government, but property owners could invoke this low-cost solution for their properties instead of neglecting them and allowing deterioration until the point of demolition.   Preservation Alliance has information about mothballing.  Contact us at info@pawv.org if you have questions.

“What can a simple coat of paint do?”

Simple aesthetic tasks like painting and gardening at multiple historic buildings in a community and town can increase pride, visitation, comfort, and value.  Although historic places might not be completely rehabilitated, making the effort to paint or do basic maintenance goes a long way.  This is something we can do right now in West Virginia.  Community painting and clean-up days will engage everyone, in addition to invoking pride in our communities.  Who wants to visit a place that even its own residents don’t want to fix up?

After hearing Sir Neil’s lecture, I left feeling inspired and hopeful for West Virginia.  There are already so many people working hard and doing what Sir Neil suggested.  He ended by reminding us that it takes a lot of partners, citizen/volunteer involvement, and an interested local/county government for historic preservation projects to be successful.  I couldn’t agree more.

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