Surely the most controversial moment of the year though had to be the Chartist mural debacle. I’ve promised myself on more than one occasion that I would just let the mural story go, but every once in a while we receive little reminders as to why the mural destruction was so symbolic. When Newport city council battered their way through with plans to obliterate the distinctive mural, they critically underestimated the sentiment of locals in Newport. Perhaps there were not thousands demonstrating against the council’s actions, but there were certainly hundreds, not to mention the odd Hollywood celeb to add to the mix.
The anger regarding the loss of the mural stimulated a debate as to what constitutes heritage. Is a thirty year old wall mounted mural something that is worthy of protection? Is it part of the heritage landscape worth protecting? Opinion in Newport was clearly divided, with the city council making a concerted decision, that being that the mural was indeed not part of the heritage landscape, and certainly not worthy of saving. This though raises other more pressing concerns, namely what comes next? What else could a council decide to cast by the wayside in the name of development and gain?
Perhaps our built heritage, in terms of castles for instance, may not seem under any immediate threat, but the heritage sector is in many respects standing on a precipice. Our museums are slowly being stripped down from the inside out, as budget cuts erode staff positions, education programmes and, in places, the very existence of museums in their entirety. Chapel heritage across Wales is gradually vanishing as more and more buildings fall out of use, while proposed developments seem to be encroaching closer and closer on to the edges of hillforts in Wales (not to mention Offa's Dyke), and it is questionable how close new buildings will get to rampart defences before new residents can confidently claim to actually live on top of an Iron Age fort. Sites and staff are threatened in a manner in which we have not experienced for several decades, and it should be an ongoing cause of concern for all in related fields.
At the same time, Welsh Government moved ahead with its consultation on the Heritage Bill for Wales. Many will remember a similar white paper being drafted for heritage in the UK several years ago, before it was bumped in the list of priorities for a general election. Whether a similar fate awaits the Welsh Heritage Bill awaits to be seen, but at the very least government in Wales is actively discussing the future framework for heritage in this country, so the field is at least not being forgotten about.
However, the poor old Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments for Wales looks set to buy the farm as a result of government involvement, despite almost everyone in public consultation stressing what an incredibly bad idea it would be to merge the RCAHMW and Cadw. While government is certainly focusing on heritage in Wales, the consequences may most clearly be manifest in the loss of another significant organisation.
While the RCAHMW remains threatened, the archaeological trusts are fighting their corner, and the Archwilio application, developed by the four trusts, is a positive reminder both of the scale of the archaeological resources at our disposal in Wales, and the intent in this country to enhance public accessibility to those resources and archives. In this respect, Wales has forged a path as a world leader regarding accessibility. Few other, if indeed any nation, can boast the same level of access to historic environment records as Wales currently does. The next challenge is to make sure people know that they can access this information, and of course encourage potential audiences that this information is worth accessing in the first place, but perhaps that is a battle for 2014. For the moment, we can certainly welcome and celebrate the addition of Archwilio to the likes of the People’s Collection project.
The real challenge for 2014 will be one of resilience. Local and national government have collectively lined up the culture sector with a succession of budget cut tipped bullets, and are only too keen to pull the trigger. What fate awaits the Newport medieval ship for instance? This internationally significant artefact is going to be evicted later this year, with no obvious home for it to go to. What happens to the Newport ship will probably serve as the acid test for the position of heritage in Wales for the rest of this decade, for if such an assemblage were to be lost to Wales, it would be an indictment on the attitudes of officials in this country regarding our heritage resource. Should the ship be saved, with an intention to display and develop, in a manner akin to the Mary Rose museum which dominated heritage headlines in 2013, then we might have some reason to be optimistic. That all awaits to be seen though, either way, some very significant decisions regarding the heritage of Wales will take place in 2014, and the ramifications will remain with us for much, much longer.