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‘Authenticity’ is a continually debated subject in our Studio, and is often considered of paramount importance when presenting historic environments to the public. However difficult decisions begin to emerge when interventions of urgent repair are to the detriment of the very qualities they are designed to preserve.

A group from our studio were recently invited to tour the J.W Evans Silversmith Factory museum in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter with the team from English Heritage who masterminded and funded the building’s conservation. What makes this project exceptional is the innovative conservation methodology adopted by the design team, whereby the factory spaces were retained exactly in the condition in which they were left when the last worker downed tools for the final time in 2008. The spaces that are on display for the visitor are deeply evocative, and the dense clutter of industry does far more to convey a sense of this traditional craft than any amount of interactive interpretation technology.

The team who showed us round spoke very openly about the challenges of sticking to the rules of such strict philosophical parameters. Questions invariably start to arise about the practicalities of conserving industrial detritus, and the comparative merits of the dust accumulated over 100 years of labours against the dust accumulated over 12 months of construction work. The accusing finger of ‘authenticity’ rises again.

To play Devil’s advocate I would suggest that the only way to achieve complete authenticity of the historic environment is to let buildings degrade into ruinous dilapidation free from the intervening hand of man. But when these surviving structures evidence the narrative of our communities and culture, their preservation remains essential.

And so the debate continues.

Congratulations to English Heritage for realising such a practically and intellectually ambitious project. More information on the Silver Factory can be found here:
http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/j-w-evans-silver-factory/

Charlie

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