What is heritage?

Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, Project Officer for You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place takes a step back to muse on what heritage is all about.

The Essex Sound and Video Archive has been granted £5000 from the Essex Heritage Trust to contribute towards our project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place – subject to receiving the rest of the funding. The grant has been awarded under the Trust’s Restoration / Conservation fund, as we intend to put the money towards purchasing equipment to digitise some of our sound and video recordings. Through digitisation, we will preserve these irreplaceable recordings, which are at risk of deterioration or loss due to obsolescent formats. Digitisation is also the first step towards making them more easily available for you to enjoy, from the comfort of your own homes.

The Trust’s approval demonstrates the trustees’ broad appreciation for the county’s assets, not limiting themselves to more obvious historical treasures such as buildings and gardens. Rather, they have recognised that the sound and video recordings we hold are equally covered by their mission statement ‘to help safeguard or preserve for the benefit of the public such land, buildings, objects, or records that may be illustrative of, or significant to, the history of the County or which enhance an understanding of the characteristics and traditions of the County’.

The bulk of the funding for the You Are Hear project will come from the Heritage Lottery Fund, if we are successful with our second-round Your Heritage grant application.

Can you spot the common denominator? The assets worthy of preservation and the motivations of the financiers are all linked to heritage.

So what is ‘heritage’? What qualifies as forming part of our heritage? Is it only to do with ‘old stuff’?

To me, heritage is about the foundation of a shared culture that demonstrates who we are, based on a common history, geography, or society. It includes historical treasures, certainly, as evidence of our past. But I think it can encompass much more than that. We should also consider what should be captured from today’s culture, which will form part of the next generation’s heritage. This is particularly important with sound and video archives, where careful planning is necessary in order to preserve recordings that might otherwise be lost.

You Are Hear aims to digitise many of our recordings and make them available, but also to actively encourage people to develop their sense of heritage within the county of Essex: building a sense of place based on the sounds and moving images that represent the county. We hold recordings related to our industrial past, such as a speech made by Marchese Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio, who built the factory in Chelmsford that enables the city to proudly proclaim itself as ‘the birthplace of radio’ on the signs as you enter its boundaries (SA 27/9/1).

Marconi disc label

We have an oral history collection about the development of Harlow as a New Town, revealing the planning that went into it, and what life was actually like for the earliest residents (SA 22). We have film footage of Morris dancers from local bands at festivals, on tour, and even at a wedding (VA 30). We have recordings of mayor-making ceremonies in Chelmsford (SA 7/571/1), Colchester (SA 8/5/12/1), and Southend (SA 20/1/5/1), capturing the ritual and dignity of local government. We have the commentary from the famous Colchester United victory over Leeds United in their fifth-round FA Cup match in 1971, a permanent reminder of one moment of glory in our county’s sporting heritage (SA 27/12/1). These recordings all demonstrate different aspects of our shared past, evoking pride and attachment to the county.

But we also have a copy of Blur’s 1995 album ‘The Great Escape’ (Acc. SA291). We have a recording of a Tilbury-Juxta-Clare parish meeting (SA 24/1001/1). We have a recording of pedestrian crossing beeps, the escalator in the BHS store, and general noise of the Southend high street in 2008 (Acc. SA501). Do these also qualify as ‘heritage’?

Why shouldn’t they? They are part of the county’s diverse and continually evolving culture. They capture the everyday – those moments that together build a realistic picture of what it is like to live in Essex. In a hundred years, what will listeners make of Blur’s music? Or the noise of an urban landscape? Historians face the challenge of trying to uncover what life was like in a former era. We have the opportunity now to give future historians a helping hand by preserving as much of our current heritage as possible. We can also help to validate the diverse culture of today’s inhabitants by recognising it as worthy of long-term preservation.

Has this made you think of some of your own sound or video recordings, which might be of interest to people today or in the future? Please do let us know: we would be delighted to help make your personal heritage part of the county’s shared culture. You can also get in touch with us for more information about any of the recordings mentioned.

You can listen to extracts from selected recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive on SoundCloud:

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