I have just returned from a fascinating conference at the University of Northampton about ‘consuming the country house’, which I mentioned earlier. ‘Consumption’ turned out to be a really useful theme to frame discussions about the social, economic, political and artistic aspects of country houses.
One of the speakers, Ruth Gill, who works for Historic Royal Palaces, mentioned a book by anthropologist Marc Augé entitled Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995). Augé analyses transient places like airports, stations and supermarkets in which myriad human transactions are processed but which do not encourage feelings of connection or belonging.
Ruth warned against the dangers of historic houses becoming too much like non-places. Sometimes the measures taken to preserve the historic fabric of a place can have the unintended consequence of making the visitor feel that he or she does not belong there.
We probably all know the feeling of being in a place that is objectively beautiful but feels somehow alien. Equally we can all remember those moments when a small detail in a painting, the smell of a tapestry or of polished wood, the proportion of a piece of furniture or a doorframe, an intellectual insight or a surprise vista in a landscape suddenly connected us to a place.
I agree with Ruth that enabling those moments of connection – between ourselves and the world, between the past and the present – is essentially what heritage is all about.