I spent the better part of this week in Dundee, Scotland. On the Sunday before I arrived, the Washington Post had a thoughtful and forward-looking feature on Dundee, written by none other than David Brown.
No, not this David Brown, although I wish I could take credit. Had I written the piece, I wouldn’t have had to buy a drink in this city all week!
Seriously, I’ve been attending the international conferences of National Trusts for two decades* and I don’t know when I’ve felt more encouraged about the movement’s future. Since my brain and body are lodged somewhere between the Scottish and U.S. time zones, I will post this as a series of short observations, interspersed with photos of this most interesting of cities.
Let’s say a few words up front about the city. Dundee had a world-class industrial past that can be seen in places large and small. It is definitely a working-class town, much like Baltimore, where the Post writer David Brown lives. And there is a lot of it still to be seen and appreciated. These photos only give a glimpse.
The INTO Dundee 2022 conference began for me on Monday evening when I was invited to join the board and some other key supporters for drinks and a tour of the Discovery,
Dundee is a port on the Firth of Tay, the place where the river widens into a tidal estuary before entering the North Sea. It was built on trade, and for many centuries it was Scotland’s second most important city, behind Edinburgh. Its maritime past is telegraphed in street names (Chandlers Lane, East Whale Lane), stone workshops along the waterfront, a compact Maritime Trail where its piers and shipyards once stood, and a small collection of historic ships.
Of the last, the most notable is the Discovery, a three-masted sailing vessel that also had a steam engine. Billed as the first ship designed specifically for scientific research — there was no iron or steel within a 30-foot radius of its “magnetic observatory” — it was built in Dundee in 1901 and owned by the Royal Geographical Society.
The Discovery’s most famous voyage was a four-year trip to Antarctica featuring two of Britain’s legendary explorers — Robert Falcon Scott, the captain, and Ernest Shackleton, the third officer. Visitors are allowed to go almost anywhere on it. (In that regard it’s better than Baltimore’s estimable Constellation, built in 1854 and used to catch slave traders, among other tasks.)
We met in the V&A Dundee, a wonderful modern building which is part of the Victoria & Albert Museum group, located next to the Discovery. This facility, dedicated to design, opened in 2018. Dame Fiona Reynolds, Chair of INTO, welcomed us on Tuesday morning. Throughout the week, Fiona demonstrated, in her own quiet and steady way, the exemplary leadership she provides to the organization. Fiona graced us with insightful, short, and pointed commentary throughout and it was such a delight to see her in person — the first time since she had me as a guest at High Table in 2019 in Cambridge. Through the years I’ve seen how Fiona nurtures relationships, speaking to everyone in ways to support and uplift others while never forgetting a name.
Outside our hotel, I came across this street sign.
Given that this was my first INTO conference where I wasn’t representing the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the U.S. (NTHP) but was there in my capacity as a consultant for INTO, I took it as a metaphorical sign (**) that I am allowed to have different priorities at this point in my life and career.
One of the issues I have been addressing through my work, writing, and speaking engagements is the use of heritage as a weapon in the culture wars. So early in the conference, at a Q&A session after several very impressive presentations, I raised this issue as one that we were skirting, perhaps at our peril. That led to a 10-to-15-minute discussion among the panelists and the conference-goers that continued throughout the week. Some two dozen delegates told me how much they appreciated the raising of that issue. A young delegate from Bosnia put it so very well when she said, “The weaponization of heritage is our life, something we have to battle every day.”
Speaking of the delegates, they came from some 72 countries, easily the most we’ve ever seen at an INTO conference. There were a great many more from Asia, Africa, and Latin America than have ever been able to join us in the past. Their experiences and perspectives added immensely to the discussion, opening my eyes in new ways and — yes — changing some of my priorities.
The panel I moderated on Balancing Tourism and Conservation — a follow-on to the study on Putting the Local into Global Heritage our firm produced for INTO last year — is a perfect example of this diversity of perspective and experience. We had terrific presentations and insightful comments from (left to right in the picture above) Qin Zhang of the Ruan Yisan Heritage Foundation in China, Miquel Rafa of the Fundacio Catalunya La Pedrera in Spain, Ranald MacInnes of Historic Environment Scotland, and Evelyn Thompson of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.
Some of the other great presentations and panels that really spoke to me and helped change my priorities included:
- Bernard Donoghue, CEO, Association for Leading Visitor Attractions in the U.K. with his insights on new developments in heritage visitation.
- Kara Newport, CEO of the NTHP Historic Site Filoli along with Simon Ambrose of the National Trust of Australia – Victoria, and their workshop session on changing historic places to adapt for changes in climate.
- Sarah Holloway, Program Manager, Heritage Open Days with her infectious enthusiasm for giving communities the say in what and how they showcase their heritage to others.
- Elon Cook-Lee, Director of Interpretation and Education at NTHP and her entire panel on the riveting subject of (Re)Interpreting Relevance.
- HRH Princess Dana Firas, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and President of the Petra National Trust, on the hard and never-ending work to engage with local communities in areas where those communities have many different priorities.
- Philip Long, CEO, National Trust for Scotland, who reminded us that when a conservation organization takes over a site, it is also taking over a long-existing image and story. Sometimes the conservation values align with that image and story…sometimes they don’t. But we can’t simply decide to prioritize conservation over those local stories without doing serious harm.
It was so good to see long-time friends and colleagues in person. Catherine Leonard, INTO’s Secretary-General and one of my dear friends, along with Alex Bishop, Deputy Secretary-General of INTO, put together a first-rate conference under tough circumstances. It was also wonderful to meet many new (and younger!) INTO members this year, and to feel that the future of the organization and the National Trust movement is in good hands.
Finally, the city of Dundee was a terrific host. I found that this city of discoverers and inventors and workers — known worldwide for its marmalade — was also home to the man who invented the adhesive postage stamp, James Chalmers!
This post is going up on a Saturday, when I normally feature roots music. We had some traditional Scottish music on Wednesday evening during the conference, so I’m posting a video of my favorite Scottish folk musicians, the Battlefield Band, playing Eight Men of Moidart.
As my dear friend Catherine likes to say, “Brilliant!”
More to come…
UPDATE: In wrapping up photos from the trip, I forgot about this one, which I’ve entitled, “A Rose by any other name.”
*I’ve attended International National Trust conferences in Edinburgh (2003), Washington (2005), New Delhi (2007 where INTO was formed), Dublin (2009), Cambridge (2015), and Bermuda (2019). I had to miss the 2011 and 2013 conferences due to illness and other commitments, and by 2017 I had rotated off the board of INTO after a 10-year run. I returned to the conference in Bermuda to give a keynote address on my last day at the National Trust for Historic Preservation after a nearly 23-year career.
**Hope I’m using this correctly. I often get figuratively and metaphorically confused.
Image of Discovery and V&A Dundee in the morning light by DJB