What’s in a name? Considering national heritage agency titles

It seems as though 2014/15 is going to be a busy year for the national heritage agencies in England, Scotland and Wales. Each is undergoing a substantial reorganisation, with English Heritage splitting to form a new charity and reformed/reduced Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB), in Scotland, Historic Scotland will merge with the Royal Commission for Historic and Ancient Monuments (RCHAMS), and in Wales the merger of the Royal Commission was discussed and sheleved amid plans for a revised heritage regulatory framework. One of the things that will be changing is the names of some of the organisations that will emerge on the other side.

This might seem a relatively minor matter when considered against the wider strategic and organisational shape of the bodies involved, which will potentially influence the direction of the next few decades of heritage management, but it does have some important impacts.

For one, a name (along with the logo, if you are semiotically inclined) is the most visible and recognisable part of the organisation. But in the context of a change of direction it also signifies, in the most ultimately distilled way, the meaning and purpose of the organisation and is the summary of who you are and what you do. It will provide most people’s first impression, and for some members of the public, their only one.

The sector has an interesting history of name changes:

In 1984 the Department of the Environment consulted on the future of the management of the Historic Building and Monuments division of the department. It suggested that the new name was critically important. Incidentally, it’s instruction was that it absolutely, under no circumstances should contain the words ‘national’ or ‘heritage’.  The unquestionably dull but fairly descriptive Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Commission was born. It immediately became English Heritage to almost everyone, much to the chargrin of those DoE civil servants… probably.

The Scottish Officer’s Historic Buildings and Monuments Directorate (HBM) became Historic Scotland in 1991.

And English Nature became Natural England in 2006 after amalgating the Countryside Agency and Rural Development Service…. Everyone’s still confused.

2014:

English Heritage have baffled with their lack of innovation by mirroring that move/copying Historic Scotland in inventing the name Historic England for the renamed NDPB which will take over government advice.

The trouble here is that English Heritage will continue to exist in charity form to manage the collections, meaning that whenever anyone (read, everyone) trips over their own tongues to say Historic England when they mean English Heritage, or English Heritage when they mean Historic England, we won’t be able to be decipher their meaning.

The Scots, meanwhile, maintain their more sensible record. Historic Scotland will not be re-branding as the organisation attempts to preserve the brand recognition it currently enjoys. will be changing the official title of the merged body to Historic Environment Scotland, but is likely to retain the brand Historic Scotland for the collections/membership arm of the business. The government advice team will them move within government to become the Historic Environment Policy Unit (HEPU). (Edited: Thanks Ian Baxter and VGC for pointing that out)

The Welsh have truly stuck to their guns, maintaining the same name – Cadw – since 1984 and the founding of the first Welsh Office directorate.

I think that there are at least 2 important considerations in a name:

i)       Description

ii)      Recognition

Together these create the public image or brand for an organisation.

i) There was a descriptive logic to the names of the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission and similarly the Historic Environment Policy Unit. Each is considered in the language that it uses to describe its function. The Commission was named thus to indicate its management structure to allay fears that the new agency model would provide unreliable leadership. HEPU uses the more modern description ‘Historic Environment’ which evokes the wider importance of heritage to society widely appreciated today than simply that of listed buildings and ancient monuments. ‘Policy unit’ also tells you what it does. It works with government, it has the ear of the Cabinet Secretary, and it is the expert representative of heritage policy to the sector.

There is also a descriptive aspect to the shorter names; So Cadw, which means Protect, connotes a particular type of heritage activity whereas English Heritage might be read as being potentially broader/more changeable, but also less descriptive (in fact, in 1982 the reason for not wishing to use the word ‘heritage’ stemmed from the perceived loose definition of the word heritage. Ironically, it has perhaps ended up being more usefully descriptive than anyone could have imagined in the early 1980s).

ii) The trouble with descriptive names like Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission is that they tend to be long, technical, and to the average person, pretty dull and unmemorable. This is where the impulse to choose a short snappy name like English Heritage comes from. It will roll off the tongue. It will look good on a poster and you can be fairly safe from accidently creating an onomatopoeically unpleasent acronym.

The trouble is that when it comes to rebranding, we are stuck between wanting to be sort of descriptive, and recognisable/easy to say and remember/punchy. Thus the idea of English Nature rebranding as essentially a political move to save some face for the amalgamated bodies, giving the impression that they were not simply being swallowed up, led to the completely inexplicable non-name change to Natural England. I mean, I wasn’t there at the time, so I don’t know what they were thinking, but I’ve never met a person who wasn’t a policy wonk that has ever called Natural England Natural England without getting it wrong first. I’d have thought that it would have been a bit of a heritage agency in-joke for EH… but now they’re replicating the same mistake in 2014. Only their crime is so much worse for the fact that English Heritage and Historic England are going to exist in parallel, doing different things… I can’t begin to imagine that ‘Ford Mondeo man’, or whoever the ‘consumers’ of Historic England are supposed to be, is really going to give enough of a care to work out the difference between the two. Which brings me on to the issue of brand…

English Heritage has a very strong brand identity, built consciously since 1984 and primarily attached to the public understanding of what the organisation does presenting the National Collection of properties, such as Stonehenge, Tintagel Castle, and the White Horse of Uffington, which millions of people visit every year and which are synonymous with many a lay perception of the heritage sector.

It makes perfect sense to retain this brand image, but it means that the new NDPB (Historic England) has a doubly difficult job in their nascent existence. They will be responsible for the 99% of undesignated heritage that isn’t in the collection, including all those wider historic environment role that HEPU have so correctly described in their new name.

For 15 years or more we, as a sector, have been expressing how important this part of the work of English Heritage is and how increasing the public’s understanding and engagement is crucial to the organisations vision. Without a public image, this is going to be a difficult task. In one sense the departure of the collection clears the distraction of the 1% of heritage that is in care and where people go for a nice walk on a sunny Sunday afternoon. It potentially allows a new organisation space to develop the understanding of the everyday heritage which impacts to a much greater extend on our lives and identities.

But on the other hand it creates a bloody great obstacle that will naturally, for a long time, continue to draw the focus of public with the brand gravity that it already possesses.

This means that a really strong focus on strategic planning for building a public image and brand for the new NDPB is crucial. This is why the name Historic England is so deeply disappointing.

It is neither descriptive nor recognisable. Given the continued role of English Heritage, the new NDPB needed to be both of these things in order to develop a brand identity in its own right.

I fear that the organisation is moving towards a decline in its visibility that will impact the efforts of the last 15 years to increase the visibility and understanding of the wider aspects of heritage in the minds of the public.

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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6 Responses to What’s in a name? Considering national heritage agency titles

  1. Gill Chitty says:

    Rumour has it that the new-ish Minister, Sajid Javid, is reigning in the decision to split EH and this confusing scenario might be in the long grass at least until after the election. Maybe others know more?

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    *Department of Archaeology, University of York* *The Kings Manor, York YO1 7EP* *01904 323925*

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  2. Ian Baxter says:

    Rob, a good consideration and very important to look at the brand, however Scotland WILL also be renaming its heritage agency as it moves to NDPB status. HEPU has been created within the main Scottish Government Culture & Heritage Directorate, but the new Historic Environment Scotland Bill http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/Bills/73219.aspx will create a new body called Historic Environment Scotland. In all likelihood however, Historic Scotland will be retained for the properties in care as a recognised brand name.

    • Rob Lennox says:

      Thanks Ian,

      Now that you mention it, that does ring a bell. HES… Could be worse. Will RCHAMS keep its name (or reference to it) in any form?

      Thanks for the correction anyway! Will go back and edit.

  3. VGC says:

    Unfortunately, up here in Scotland, they’re not being sensible. The new organisation following the RCAHMS/HS merger will be called Historic Environment Scotland (HES). Which is just rubbish.

    • Rob Lennox says:

      Thanks for the correction. Historic Environment Scotland could be worse. The problem North of the border is indistinguishable acronyms: HES, HS, SHEP, SHES, SHED, SSAC, SCARF… (Which is very nearly an anagram of HEAD HURTS SSSSSSSSHHH!).

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