Curating Decay

This year we will be running our first course at Waltham Abbey Gunpowder Mills, a site of national significance for the history of explosives in Europe.

The course will comprise three morning talks from expert speakers, covering a range of issues in the management of vulnerable heritage sites, and reimagining how we might adopt an ethical stance that allows us to collaborate with natural processes and decay, rather than fighting against them.

Lunch will be provided, followed by a chance to visit the Royal Gunpowder Mills exhibition, which presents a detailed understanding of the sites 300 year history and the science behind gunpowder. There will also be a guided tour of the site, a Scheduled Monument full of unique architecture and sensitivities, led by expert speaker Wayne Cocroft.

The talks will include:

The Royal Gunpowder Mills: From Factory to Heritage (Wayne Cocroft)

This presentation will provide a brief history of the Royal Gunpowder Mills.  It will discuss the evolution of the gunpowder mills landscape and the industrial archaeology of gunpowder and chemical explosives manufacture, and how they are exemplified by the remains we see today.

This talk will be provided by Wayne Cocroft, FSA.  In 1993, Wayne led the team that carried out the archaeological survey of the Royal Gunpowder Mills soon after its closure by the Ministry of Defence.  He is the author of Dangerous Energy the archaeology of gunpowder and military explosives manufacture, co-author of Cold War building for nuclear confrontation 1946-1989; War Art murals and graffiti – military life, power and subversion, and Archaeology of The Teufelsberg: Exploring Western Electronic Intelligence Gathering in Cold War Berlin, and co-editor of A Fearsome Heritage diverse legacies of the Cold War, The Home Front in Britain 1914-18, and Legacies of the First World War.

Curated Decay (Caitlin DeSilvey)

We know that not all heritage sites can be conserved, but what options are available for sites where some loss—of fabric or form—is inevitable? Caitlin DeSilvey’s talk will explore the care of vulnerable heritage sites, sharing examples of places where heritage managers have chosen to work with natural processes of decay and erosion and find cultural significance in material transience. Caitlin’s ideas are grounded in appreciation of ‘conservation as the management of change’, but propose a more expansive understanding of material change as productive and generative, an inevitable element of natural and cultural landscapes which can provide unique opportunities for engagement and interpretation.

Caitlin DeSilvey is Associate Professor of Cultural Geography at the University of Exeter, where she is a member of the Environment and Sustainability Institute. Her research into the cultural significance of material change has involved extensive collaboration with heritage practitioners, archaeologists, ecologists, artists and others. She is currently co-investigator on two UK Arts and Humanities Research Council projects, Heritage Futures and Repair Acts. In 2016-17 she was a fellow at the Centre for Advanced Study, Oslo, in the After Discourse research group. She has published a number of edited books and journal articles. Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving (University of Minnesota Press 2017) received the 2018 UMW Historic Preservation Book Prize in recognition of its contribution to the intellectual vitality of conservation practice and its ground-breaking proposals for interpretation of historic sites that are ‘beyond saving’.

Orford Ness: Managing and Curating a Heritage Site (Angus Wainwright)

Angus Wainwright will provide the final talk of the morning. Angus is the Archaeologist for the National Trust in the East of England, and has worked extensively on the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment test buildings and associated structures at Orford Ness. AWRE was one of only a few sites in the UK where purpose-built facilities were created for testing the components of nuclear weapons. The site was used by the AWRE and the Royal Aircraft Establishment during the Cold War for developmental work on the atomic bomb. Angus will explore the history and context of the site, and the rationale that guided their decision to curate the decay of the AWRE facility.


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Waltham Abbey Footbridge

Gunpowder presshouse wheel

Waltham Abbey Gunpowder Press House

Waltham Abbey Powerhouse