The visitor centre is a poisoned chalice
IT seems to have become a truth universally acknowledged that every good heritage attraction needs a visitor centre. This is the place to purchase tickets, to visit the loo and, as a special treat, to purchase an ice cream (but only for those who’ve been well behaved in the car getting there).
In the past, the Ministry of Works and the National Trust were satisfied to erect simple and unobtrusive ticket huts, the thinking being that a site should be disturbed by its public accessibility as little as possible. Alas, no more! A mere ticket hut is an opportunity missed and everyone is scrambling to replace them as quickly as the Heritage Lottery Fund can provide the necessary funds.
Many reasons are given. Modern visitors require ‘orientation’, rotating exhibitions and education about—and ahead of—whatever it is they’ve chosen to see. A dreary ice cream is a hopelessly inadequate substitute for a restaurant and the modest desk that once sold a handful of faded postcards and a guidebook, it is asserted, has no appeal for the modern consumer of heritage. Instead, therefore, the need is for something akin to a mini department store.
Whatever their justification, such buildings are vastly expensive to design and construct (the one at Stonehenge cost £27 million). In most cases, it’s hard to believe that—penny for penny with running expenses—they can ever return their cost. More importantly, they run the risk of compromising the character of the very places they’ve been created to serve.
Take the example of Charleston Farmhouse, a ramshackle place in East Sussex famously inhabited by the Bloomsbury Group, who left London and settled here to enjoy a bohemian lifestyle. Money was short and they decorated the house themselves with beautiful and fragile murals. They lived in this exposed and isolated situation surrounded by empty fields and lonely farm buildings. The whole point of Charleston was that it provided an escape from what its owners perceived as the modern world.
Now, new visitor facilities are planned here. They will doubtless attract more visitors, who will hopefully support the cost of conservation works to the fabric of the farmhouse. In short, the project may indirectly secure the future of the property, but will the facilities be appropriate additions to it?
Ahead of the works, the site has already been ‘branded’ with modern signs plastered all over the place. These tacitly erode the very sense of authenticity that makes a place like this significant in the first place. No number of shiny, award-winning visitor centres can ever make up for the destruction of genuine atmosphere.
If this is to be the fate of Charleston, then perhaps we should be asking ourselves whether we should be finding other ways of saving and maintaining places of cultural importance.
‘They run the risk of compromising the character of the places they serve