An image of Diocletian's Camp Palmyra, Syria
Diocletian's Camp, Palmyra, Syria © Bernard Gagnon
Diocletian's Camp, Palmyra, Syria © Bernard Gagnon

Our Chief Executive on why we care about historic places


The historic environment bears its own enduring witness to the history of man. It cannot be interpreted or placed in glass cabinets for description and preservation. We must live in and around it. This is what makes it fundamental to a nation’s soul. The power of its testimony is shown by the importance people attach to it the world over – both those who seek to destroy and those who protect ancient places.

My first weeks at Historic England were ones of tumult in ancient places. Earthquakes in Nepal were followed by the capture of Palmyra by Isis. The world held its breath for the sort of attacks on heritage that the New York Times called ‘attacks on the best in all of us’.

One of the first commitments people make after a disaster like that in Nepal is to rebuild the historic sites the country holds dear. Because they represent the spirit of its people. And this is why heritage becomes a target when cultures, races and nations are under attack.

England’s places are no different. During the Second World War, Churchill wanted St Paul’s Cathedral to be protected ‘at all costs’ as a symbol for the nation. Men and women risked their lives in the Cathedral watch, and St Paul’s stands still. This is a humbling legacy for those of us involved in heritage protection today – the professionals, volunteers, campaigners and visitors that make up our tribe.

We must ensure that our starting point is always to hand on the incredible opportunity of our historic environment to future generations. The memorable inscription on Wren’s tomb inside his masterpiece, St Paul’s, reads ‘If you seek his monument, look around you.’ This is a standard by which all heritage workers can be judged – that future generations are able to look around them and feel in awe, curious, inspired.

The challenge today seems less heroic than in previous centuries. But it is no less important – whether the threat is gradual decay, climate change, or insensitive and sometimes senseless development. This does not always mean we can or should freeze our historic environment in time. Dereliction is a huge threat, and finding sustainable uses so people can experience and enjoy it today is a key job for the heritage movement. People value what they know and understand, and they look after what they value. Our heritage embodies the record of the struggles of previous generations – their highs and their lows. Our job is to unlock these stories. We must always do it on the basis of evidence, understanding and expertise. But that is only half the job. The other half is telling these stories – so that the historic environment is understood, cared-for and celebrated. And we need to make sure that our knowledge and skill is effectively applied for the good of historic places.

The creation of Historic England is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring the historic environment into the foreground of our national life, in order to realise its enormous potential – both economic and social. But this can only happen if we win the argument for heritage. The new model for Historic England was a major step forward. It has allowed both the English Heritage Trust and Historic England to focus on our individual expertise, with full backing from government who have underwritten the cost. It has encouraged both organisations to be creative, finding new ways of engaging and bringing more resources into the sector. We need to keep winning the argument for heritage. At the moment, an important focus for us is the next public spending review. We recognise the scale of the task, but we must ensure that the heritage sector is at least not disproportionately hit when it comes to spending cuts. For the historic environment is central to our nation’s prosperity and quality of life. We are working with partners across the heritage and history landscape to face our challenges together.

I am very grateful to all those of you who have made me very welcome in my new role, as well as all those who have been involved in the creation of Historic England and who are so committed to its success. I am delighted to be here, and I am looking forward to continuing to work with you all. Effective co-operation will secure our legacy.

If you have any feedback for Duncan please email [email protected]