Our overseas heritage is crumbling
BRITAIN has left its own distinctive mark on the farthest corners of the Earth. From Asia and Africa to the Americas and Australia, British imperial interests created the public buildings, offices, warehouses and factories that provided the infrastructure for modernisation in so many countries. Nevertheless, our architectural perspective remains extraordinarily Anglo-centric. We are largely blind to this astonishing legacy.
Although this shared heritage is highly valued by many nations, sadly, that is by no means always the case. Important elements of Britain’s overseas heritage are falling to pieces for want of practical support and interest from the UK. This is in marked contrast with other European countries, such as France, Holland, Denmark and Spain, which support their overseas heritage through modest direct aid, specialist advice or educational initiatives to foster local skills, jobs and expertise. Nowhere is this neglect more evident than in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), which retains a spectacular shared heritage, much of which is crumbling.
A case in point is the city’s Botanic Garden, the oldest of its kind in India and a site of world significance. It was founded by Col Robert Kyd in 1787 and it was here that the first pioneering experiments were made to introduce tea from China into India.
We are largely blind to this astonishing legacy
Kyd’s successor from 1793, William Roxburgh, oversaw the development of the gardens into a world centre of botanical research and scientific experiment. Roxburgh built a fine house for himself and his family in gleaming white stucco with an elegant curved bay facing the Hooghly River, beautifully recorded in an atmospheric watercolour by Sir Charles D’oyly.
Today, the gardens are managed by the Botanical Survey of India. Shockingly, the once-elegant house lies derelict. Its old research buildings are decaying and the 300acre gardens are a shambles. Piles of mud excavated from the drainage ditches are killing vegetation. What should be one of the jewels in the city’s crown is in desperate need of an integrated Conservation and Landscape Management Plan, involving skills that Britain has in abundance. It is cases like this that have thrown in to sharp relief the lack of any UK focus for assistance.
The Culture White Paper has called for ideas to promote Britain better abroad. This includes a commitment to a £30 million Cultural Protection Fund, but, bizarrely, this is intended to help save cultural heritage in war-torn countries, such as Iraq and Syria.
Two other existing funds—the Prosperity Fund and the GREAT UK Challenge Fund —could, and should, be able to assist those working to save this unique shared heritage, but, to date, neither has identified this as a priority or an opportunity. A clear signal from Government about both funds would enable eligible bodies to initiate action in partnership with host countries around the world to deliver jobs, skills and prosperity for all concerned. Soft power should deliver hard projects. Britain’s neglected overseas heritage offers a unique opportunity to do just that.