Turning History into Heritage: Shaping Perceptions of Copper’s Past

Brass sheet manufactured by Vivian and Sons, Swansea for the Indian market
Brass sheet manufactured by Vivian and Sons, Swansea for the Indian market (credit: Vin Callcut, oldcopper.org)
The ESRC-funded Global and Local Worlds of Welsh Copper Project achieved its third milestone on 30 June when the gallery exhibition Byd Copr Cymru-A World of Welsh Copper was open for preview at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea. The exhibition will run until 15 October 2011 and a travelling version will tour Wales and other venues in the UK. I will blog more about my experience curating this exhibition in due course.

Shortly after the exhibition’s opening I gave a paper at the informal workshop, also organised by the project, on 14-15 July. The workshop title took its name from the project with the aim of bringing research into various aspects of the historic industry up to date. There was particular emphasis on examples of the global impact of the Welsh copper industry, particularly that centred in the Lower Swansea Valley. I hope to make abstracts of the papers available in the research section of the (still in development) Welsh Copper website soon.

Analysis of access to copper heritage on Copper Day
Analysis of access to copper heritage on Copper Day
My paper examined the current place that the copper industry occupies in our local and global heritage and then went on to make a preliminary analysis of two of the project’s major outcomes, Copper Day and the exhibition. The aim here was to set a benchmark for understanding how our knowledge-transfer initiatives worked in practice. This will then form the basis to a longer-term project to gauge professional and public perceptions of the historic copper industry with a view to conducting a survey over the next 12 months. I intend to publish this paper in an expanded form and am currently looking for appropriate journals or editorial collaborations.

Shaping Perceptions of Copper’s Past

Summary of main themes

Industrial heritage is largely a concern of the built environment comprising monuments and sites. The domination the historic environment sector on the interpretation of and use of industrial cultural landscapes has largely been fuelled by an emphasis on the safeguarding and preservation of physical remains. The re-emergence of industrial landscapes as places of local and regional distinctiveness has also driven the desire to improve the quality and experience of these sites, to both boost cultural tourism and provide local communities with a ‘sense of place’.

This focus on tangible industrial heritage, promoted by international guidelines such as the World Heritage Convention (1972), European Landscape Convention (2000), and their derivatives, has caused certain aspects of an industry or place’s history to be obscured and unconnected. Indeed, in spite of initiatives such as the European Route of Industrial Heritage many sites function as well-conserved islands of passing interest to tourists and local communities with little sense of their original roles as places of interconnected economic and social complexity.

These disjunctures have, in part, been compounded by a lack of publically-circulating, high-quality information on a local industry’s role on national and global stages, causing the subject’s marginalisation in educational curricula and in mainstream publication, and eliciting variable interest from policy-makers and the media. So-called ‘knowledge transfer’ initiatives such as the ESRC-funded Global and Local Worlds of Welsh Copper Project have sought to redress this imbalance by bringing academically privileged information and specialist research to much wider and larger audiences.

However, in the British context, unlike iron, coal and cotton, copper is an industry without a defining heritage site. Without the constraints of the well-known conserved fabric of a particular landscape this project had relative freedom to set an agenda for communicating the interconnected histories of the global copper industry, while remaining rooted in several of the key locales. The other freedom, which this type of project has afforded, is its relative independence from the institutional agenda of a single organisation.

Although it is too early for a full evaluation of the actual impacts such a project will have on securing a legacy for the heritage of the copper industry, a close quantitative and qualitative analysis of the two major initiatives of the Welsh Copper Project, Copper Day and the exhibition, Byd Copr Cymru-A World of Welsh Copper, shows the extent to which the original intentions for the project have been fulfilled and sets a benchmark for possible future expectations.

This critique of industrial heritage and appraisal of the Welsh Copper Project will form the basis for a major survey of professional and public perceptions of copper’s heritage with a view to publishing the results in Summer 2012.

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