Commonwealth Heritage at Risk project (CHAR)

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Fig. 1. Heritage at Risk, Strand Road Warehouses, Kolkata

By Philip Davies - Our Chairman explains the progress we are making on our exciting new initiative to identify Heritage at Risk in Commonwealth countries…

The CHF fully subscribes to the Commonwealth values set out in the Commonwealth Charter. The special strength of the Commonwealth lies in the combination of our diversity and our shared inheritance in language, culture and the rule of law. We are bound together by collective history and tradition; by respect for all states and peoples and by reciprocal values and principles.

The Commonwealth way is to seek consensus through consultation and imparting the benefits of experience, especially through practical co-operation; values which underpin our mission of sharing our common heritage.

Many historic buildings and sites across the Commonwealth are at risk from neglect, poorly-conceived development, or natural disasters such as earthquake, fire or hurricane damage. Often there is little awareness of what exists, what is at risk, why, and how to safeguard these irreplaceable assets for the future. Once an historic building is lost, it is gone forever. Urgent action is needed now to understand the scale of the problem and to explore creative solutions.

Crafted by free, indentured and enslaved peoples over many generations, this unique shared heritage is central to the identity of many Commonwealth nations. Encouraging a collective understanding of its economic, cultural and environmental value will hopefully help foster conservation-led regeneration, a renaissance of traditional skills, and opportunities for learning and jobs generating prosperity for those involved. One of our core objectives is to help marginalised young people and disadvantaged communities develop the skills and understanding needed to save the heritage they value.

In conjunction with Oxford Brookes university and Texas A&M university, our Commonwealth Heritage at Risk project (CHAR) project will work directly with local people and agencies in host countries to carry out digital inventories of historic buildings and sites, identify those most at risk and demonstrate how they can be adapted to beneficial new uses. This will involve education and training for local people to help disadvantaged communities save their most precious historic assets, improve resilience and address the challenges of rapid urbanisation, sustainability and climate change.

The CHAR project has received support from a whole host of organisations in the UK and overseas. These include the Prince’s Foundation, World Monuments Fund, Cambridge University, Oxford University, University College, London, the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, University of the West Indies, National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean Heritage Network, the Institute of Historic Buildings Conservation, Historic England, Historic Environment Scotland and the Governor General of Antigua and Barbuda.

Once the inventories are collated and analysed, clear priorities can be established for action. This will enable the CHF to achieve its primary goal of helping local communities to save their most precious assets through raising awareness, advocacy, and also levering in funds from a variety of sources.

The CHAR project will use the ARCHES database, which is a universally-recognised, open-source software system developed by the Getty Conservation Institute and World Monuments Fund for the management of cultural heritage data. Freely available to heritage and cultural institutions to adapt for their own specific uses, it is in common use internationally and ideally suited for the identification of heritage sites and those most at risk.

Applications for grant aid to support the project are currently under consideration by several funding bodies and private sponsors. Pilot projects are under discussion with Pakistan, Nigeria and Trinidad and Tobago with the intention of extending the programme to all interested Commonwealth countries. Subject to receiving funding, the projects will start in February 2021.

Our initiative will be shared with host countries and UK diaspora communities via a series of online talks and events both on the pilot projects and the CHAR objectives as a whole. This will raise awareness of the unique shared heritage and history of the Commonwealth and help build education and understanding among diaspora communities.

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Fig. 2. It is not just historic buildings that are at risk. Among the most vulnerable sites are burial grounds where important graves have long since fallen into disrepair like this once fine, early 19th century table tomb in the grounds of the cathedral in St John’s, Antigua