Aberystwyth Old College stairway graffiti

Young People and Heritage

I often hear it said that it is difficult to get young people involved in heritage and that they are not interested in helping to preserve aspects of the heritage in the way that earlier generations have done. I do not believe this to be true, and we have had no difficulty in attracting young people to be part of the Royal Commission’s pioneering youth-engagement project, called ‘Unloved Heritage?

This has been running for three years now and is one of several projects under the ‘Unloved Heritage?’ banner funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, co-ordinated by Polly Groom at Cadw and run by ourselves, Cadw and the Welsh Archaeological Trusts. Fundamental to the Commission’s project is abandoning preconceptions about ‘heritage’. Broadly defined, heritage means the things from the past and present that you value enough to want to hand on to future generations. That means everyone has a slightly different definition of heritage. Sometimes these ideas overlap, sometimes they don’t. So the secret to engaging young people in heritage is not to expect them to share your values – you might be concerned about a historic chapel, mine, canal or railway – but to ask them what they value and how they would like to record it for posterity.

Our group have given themselves a name – the CHYPs (Ceredigion Heritage Youth Panel), they are, as you might expect, very adept at social media, blogging, website design and photography – the results of their work can be seen here: https://ceredigionofflimits.home.blog/about/. They call their project ‘Ceredigion Off-Limits’ because they are fascinated by unconventional and over-looked aspects of heritage – so as you will see from their blog, they were just as interested in the cars that had been dumped at the entrance to an abandoned lead mine as by the industrial archaeology that they have been documenting through photography.

Experimental photography at Llannon Cottage, Ceredigion
Experimental photography at Llannon Cottage, Ceredigion

A year ago, I persuaded the National Library to give the CHYPs access to a mysterious cavern with a firmly barred entrance that lies beside the steep path up to the library from the main road east out of Aberystwyth. Local legend had it that a long-lost archivist dwelt in its depths among the giant spiders, and that you could find priceless objects lost or forgotten in the dark depths of the interior: for this was one of the caves that was used to store the British Library’s most precious manuscripts during the Second World War.

Aberystwyth Old College stairway graffiti
Aberystwyth Old College stairway graffiti

Despite the graffiti just inside the entrance warning that ‘Death waits around the corner’, we found good dry walls lined with hard blue Stafford bricks, and rusting metal sheets forming a fire-proof vault. We used our archaeological skills to identify the slots in the walls where air-conditioning systems had been hung and the metal brackets used to secure the weight of the shelves, long gone, that had been used to store the crates of medieval manuscripts. From the references to ‘punk’ in the graffiti on the walls we worked out that the cavern had probably been accessible until the late 1970s. One surreal piece of graffiti boasted ‘I just got 98 per cent in my maths O level’; while a sarcastic note underneath said: ‘You liar; you only got 58 per cent’. What sort of graffiti artists today would think of arguing over their (presumably mock) GCSE level results?

While the coronavirus crisis prevents us doing fieldwork with the CHYPs, they are very keen to continue with their work and we are hoping that we can carry on with the programme in an amended form – for example the CHYPs are creating a new blog to capture life during the pandemic –calling it Treftadaeth Ansicr / Uncertain Heritage. They are continuing to prepare a postponed exhibition called ‘The Story Of a House on a Hill’ (along with an accompanying booklet/online documentation) that will go ahead at Aberystwyth Arts Centre based on the recording work they have done to tell their story documenting an abandoned upland Welsh farmhouse (originally built as a leadmine-manager’s house) and its contents, near Bontgoch.

Cwmystwyth mineshaft with dumped car
Cwmystwyth mineshaft with dumped car

They are also carrying out research work on Aberystwyth’s leisure and entertainment sites, past and present, to create a new and distinctive ‘Town Heritage Trail: Splendour, Showbiz and Song’.

So, let’s hear no more talk of young people not being interested in heritage. And if you have young people at home looking for ideas to stave off cabin fever and boredom, it would be well worth having a conversation about what they value and want to pass on – and perhaps encourage them to undertake a project or do research using the online resources of the Royal Commission and the Peoples’ Collection Wales.

Perhaps they too would like to keep a diary of the times we are living through – just as Samuel Pepys did during the Great Fire of London and the Plague years.

Christopher Catling, Secretary of the Royal Commission

04/03/2020

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