Our over­seas her­itage is crum­bling

Country Life Every Week - - Athena - Cul­tural Cru­sader

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.