Why go National?

Kirby Hall, a detail with two datestones, photographed by Patricia Payne in 2015

(By Kathryn Morrison, Head of Historic Places Investigation North & East, Historic England)

In the world of archaeology, regional research frameworks are well known and widely used. It may come as a surprise to some, therefore, that we have elected to fund the development of a national framework for research on historic buildings.

There are several reasons for this:

  • Regional frameworks tend to be based on broad periods, beginning with prehistory and running through to the present day. Inevitably, priorities for research into the historic built environment tend to be compressed into the last few pages or final chapter of the published documents.
Kirby Hall, a detail with two datestones, photographed by Patricia Payne in 2015
Kirby Hall, a detail with two datestones, photographed by Patricia Payne in 2015 (©Historic England Archive)
  • Because the historical study of buildings is often regarded as tangential to the discipline of archaeology – intersecting principally in the activity called ‘buildings archaeology’ – existing research frameworks do not fully serve the needs of architectural historians and others engaged in researching the historic built environment. Recent frameworks are more balanced in this respect than some of their predecessors, which were purely archaeological. But lack of consistency across the suite of frameworks remains problematic.
Guy’s Hospital Chapel (1739), photographed in 2012 by Derek Kendall (©Historic England Archive)
Guy’s Hospital Chapel (1739), photographed in 2012 by Derek Kendall (©Historic England Archive)
  • Much research on buildings cuts across regional boundaries. Not only do many of us engage with national themes (for example, by studying the output of a particular architect or building type, regardless of geography), but assessments of significance (for example, for listing purposes) usually take into account the national context.
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (1958), photographed in 2011 by James O. Davies (©Historic England Archive)
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (1958), photographed in 2011 by James O. Davies (©Historic England Archive)
  • Last but not least, creating a fresh series of regional frameworks for research on buildings would have been a vast and expensive task which would have occupied us for many years.

Under the circumstances, it was agreed that a national framework would deliver the most benefits, for the greatest number of people, in the shortest period of time. It will make the best use of the resources we have to hand.

Some organisations have already undertaken work that might inform the new framework. The National Trust, for example, has published a research strategy, while Historic England’s research agenda sets out the themes, topics and research questions it feels are priorities. A national framework will enable all those involved in researching the built environment to share information on what is being done, and by whom, as well as identifying gaps in knowledge.

Looking forward, a national research framework for historic buildings will lay foundations which might underpin future iterations of the regional archaeological frameworks – or may even support the creation of separate regional, local or thematic frameworks devoted to the history of buildings. The survey and workshops organised by HISTBEKE provide a forum for us all to start debating such issues.

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