English Heritage: A brand identity crisis?

With the imminent split of English Heritage into two bodies – one half to become a charitable body to continue care of the historic properties in the Collection and the other to continue with government liaison and policy duties – is the organisation sleep-walking into a crisis of identity, a confused public image, and a potentially damaging threat to it’s people-centred heritage functions?

Sunday’s piece in the Indy provides a good up to date analysis of the split. And others have commented, such as @MikeHeyworth on BBC R4’s Today programme back in September,  that the service side is where an array of vital functions relating to planning and wider impacts on heritage are carried out which must be safeguarded.

However, I fear that not only is it vital that provision for those services remains intact and safe, but that now more than ever, the new service must retain visibility and public profile which reflects the organisation’s mandate to put people at the heart of heritage protection.

Without the Collections – which are widely known of and instantly recognisible from the castle symbol (present on ‘brown signs’ all over England) and from it’s media profile – there is a real need for the new service to promote itself. This is potentially worrying.

However, on the other hand this could be a unique opportunity; both to develop a public profile for broader historic environment issues, such as sense of place and local character, and to change traditional negative perceptions of the organisation as the ‘abominable “no” men’, expanding how the organisation is seen and re-enforcing more recent democratic and participative heritage ideals that have been championed since the early 2000s.

However, the way in which the split is being approached doesn’t seem to reflect this.

I wish to reserve discussion of the details until the scale and form of the public consultation (due this Monday passed – see below) is known, but I will – now that the Independent has openly revealed what has been known internally for several months – take issue with the name of the new body:

Historic England

Arguably a simple solution to a potentially difficult naming exercise…

Positives:

  • It mirrors Historic Scotland (although that may well change name next year) and Natural England (which is still confusingly widely referred to by its old name English Nature…)

Negatives:

  • It is virtually unrecognisably different to English Heritage – which will be retained as the brand of the Charity.
  • It does not describe the difference in function between the charity and the government advice service NDPB.
  • It does not describe what the service does or why it is important and in no way supports a change perception towards the organisation.
  • It is utterly forgettable.

The last thing that such a vital heritage organisation needs to be at present is forgettable while cuts continue to loom and Government looks to decimate any service that cannot prove its worth.

The organisation has seriously missed an opportunity if this goes ahead, and I fear it could be very damaging to the ability of the new organisation to state its case for what heritage does within society (within the public value ideology it has been developing for a decade).

Suggestions for the new body? Well, I take inspiration from the model used for naming of the new ‘Scottish Governmet Historic Environment Policy Unit':

Well, it should recognise the centrality of PEOPLE. So it should be a SERVICE, not an agency or a commission.

It is about the holistically defined HISTORIC ENVIRONMENT.

And it has a core role of ADVISING government.

So how about:

Historic Environment Advice Service for England”

Not very flashy, perhaps. But it emphasises 3 important points, and at least it describes what the service does. Which for a body which has just been divorced from its most widely recognisable part is vital.

Should this be sacrificed for the sake a snappy name? Can’t someone more creative than me come up with something that does both? I hope that this is addressed in a full and open consultation!

(EDIT: And as someone has just pointed out to me you could add ‘Records’ to make it HEARSE…)

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About Rob Lennox

Currently studying at the University of York, investigating the transition in planning-led cultural heritage policy in the last two decades. I am using this blog to share the findings I make during my research with the hope of stimulating debate and increasing understanding of the implications of government policy on the historic environment in England. In particular, my research focuses on the ways in which the public engage with archaeology and the ways in which we as archaeologists or heritage professionals construct the processes of knowledge gathering, and to what ends. I hope that through this blog other interested parties will be able to influence and be influenced by my observations and findings as they occur in real-time, and that ultimately it will contribute to the overall understanding of the heritage sector.
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2 Responses to English Heritage: A brand identity crisis?

  1. Pingback: English Heritage, Historic England, Historic Mistake? | (un)free archaeology

  2. Pingback: The Farrell Review launches – and there’s a lot to talk about. | Of Archaeological Interest

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