OPP Day 2 – Beckford’s Tower and Museum

We spent most of today at Beckford’s Tower and Museum with the unbelievably amazing Dr Amy Frost from the Bath Preservation Trust. Her absolute wealth of knowledge will be tapped into over the next three days as she joins us again tomorrow for the Royal Crescent and Thursday for the Museum of Bath Architecture. For today, the focus was on heritage conservation, specifically buildings. After an in depth tour on the tower and a spiel on UK heritage laws and practices we broke into groups and completed our own building survey.

I’ll start by summarising the tour of the tower. William Beckford had the tower built in 1826 with construction work finishing in 1827. One year later, all interiors were added to the building. It was built on the cusp of architectural change between Neo-classicism/Greek revival and Picturesque. This essentially means it looks like something drawn out of Ancient Greece with painting lookalike features. Greek revival has clear connotations of democracy and power and offers a visual statement of wealth. Beckford had the tower built to serve as a place of escape. It also stored some of his incredibly extensive collection that he amounted during his various travels and trade. He was a very interesting character to say the least.

After a quick look at the building from the outside we were directed into the two-room museum. The first room provides a biography of Beckford including his family’s involvement in the slave trade and subsequent wealth. What was really interesting to hear is that, as Frost described, being a small museum means they can explore dark history and push the boundaries of their displays confronting audiences. Frost emphasised that their role was to tell the facts to the best of their ability and acknowledge what happened in the past not shy away. I respect this attitude so much in a museum context.

In the first room of the museum was a model of Fonthill Abbey. This building stored most of Beckford’s collection. I will say the quality of his collection surpassed George IV, a King renowned for having his own exquisite collection. Anyway, the model is only one of two in the world in that it is an original architectural model from the 19th century that has survived. The second room contained more of his furniture and paintings.

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The most interesting part of the tour was our discussion on how heritage is interpreted and conserved in the tower. There is no replica furniture etc in the rooms. All of it is original and has been sourced from private collectors who purchased the pieces at auction after Beckford’s death. This was used as a segway into a discussion on how important the term significance has become in English heritage. No matter what the state of a place, if it is significant it should be preserved. This term has also obviously become important in Australian heritage vernacular as well.

What underpins all processes of English heritage from assessing significance to preservation work is this idea of constructive conservation. Not only should a building be researched, but also, observations should be documented and taken into consideration. Frost prepared a wonderful hand out for us on the basics of conservation in the UK and how to conserve on a shoestring budget. I will include a picture of the conservation principles below.

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The part we had hands on experience with was surveying a site. In groups of six we were allocated a building section and had to write our observations and furthermore, what we think had caused it and why. Our group had the south wall and all our observations were noted whilst standing in a 19th century cemetery. The true heritage experience. We noted things like rust on the windows, cracked stones, and water damage. Presenting to our whole group led us to investigate further why such decay had occurred. It was a fantastic learning experience and we came to appreciate what can be achieved on a shoestring budget.

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Our group observations

After hiking up and down the 154 tower stairs we left Beckford Tower for a free afternoon in Bath. Such an amazing hands on morning that provided an in depth introduction to conservation.

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