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During the Chester Heritage Festival, student volunteers from the Department of History and Archaeology were lucky enough to partake in book conservation at Chester Cathedral. To begin with, we were taken on a tour of the cathedral learning all about the different dates and architectural styles of the building and the conservation skills used in the upkeep. We were also able to go up the tower – many, many, many steps – to see some beautiful views of Chester! Then, we learnt about basic book conservation skills and the issues (bugs, mould, sun damage) that will affect these books and how they can be identified and solved. Finally, we were ready to conserve the Bishop Jacobson Collection.

Every day, we arrived at the cathedral filled with sheer excitement over the books that we would be able to handle and help conserve that day. You could feel the buzz when someone found a book from 1535 or hear the cackle when someone found a dictionary on ‘the Vulgar Tongue’. We cleaned the books with makeup brushes and smoke sponges, tied them together to ensure the loose (or totally off) covers would not go missing and wrote assessment sheets on the damage and their priority for more complex conservation. The wonderful team at the cathedral supported us and wowed us with their knowledge – thank you so much to Naomi, Emily, Tom (both the stone mason and our lecturer) and everyone else behind the scenes! It was an amazing experience to handle these pieces of history and chat to the very enthusiastic public about conservation and heritage.

But what is the point of heritage? Why did we volunteer to conserve these books? And, no, actually, I’m going to stop there before I question my future career plans and have an existential crisis…

First, let me explain what heritage is. It is a heavily contested field, as we have seen with recent debates on statues, historic sites and decolonisation. Historians have varying definitions on what counts as heritage from criticisms on how selective and nostalgic it is, to how it uncovers all history and allows local heritage to flourish. However, the best and simplest definition of heritage that I have found is that it is our inheritance of the past. This can be both tangible and intangible. Whether it is physical buildings, monuments, and objects (for example, the books we have been dusting), or if it is cultural – dances, folklore, sports and customs. These are all inheritances of the past, and therefore our heritage. So, what it the point in conserving and promoting heritage?

Heritage allows us all a lens to the past. When academia seems needlessly inaccessible, we can all reach history through heritage. I love travelling and one of my favourite parts is exploring the country’s history through its architecture, monuments, and artefacts. Not only does it allow me to explore the country’s past, but it also shows me what people in the present believe to be important enough to keep (and I wonder what things they believe to be disposable). It gives an insight into a culture. Heritage is the everyday, it shapes identities and is a constant reminder of the past. It is rich and interesting, and I love it.

However, heritage has been, rightfully, criticised. Those in power can control the heritage the public sees and utilise it to manipulate public opinion. The Blitz Spirit has been constantly referred to during the COVID-19 pandemic to promote an image of the British as resilient and victorious. And political leaders continue to try and link themselves to ‘great’ figures of the past to give them a form of legitimacy – a sense of being the rightful heir to the country. This is an abuse of heritage. There are other ways in which leaders attempt to erase the past for their own gain. This can be seen with a change of regime – in Cambodia, Pol Pot announced his first year as Year Zero, and during revolutionary France, Maximilien Robespierre set out a new calendar. These were attempts to erase heritage and forget any alternative way of society.

It is clear that heritage can be misused and manipulated by those with authority. This week allowed us to become a part of that authority and engage with the public. While conserving books may seem small, it showed to us the travels of a single man, the political and religious beliefs at the time and how Bishop Jacobson needed a phrase book for when he visited Wiltshire! This small collection of books presented us with a lens to view just a tiny part of the past. And we were then able to pass these fragmented images onto the public.

Furthermore, it was not just the contents of these books that showed us the past but also the books themselves. What material they were made from, how they were bound and how the pages were cut. It shows us the techniques used, how mass-produced books were and the development of print. You can gain so much knowledge from a single artefact and that makes conservation unbelievably exciting.

The cathedral is open to all to visit their books and for volunteers to help with conservation. You do not have to be a history and archaeology student to take part in heritage. We can all take ownership of the past and help to preserve it. We are all able to be a part of the authority on heritage.

If you fancy volunteering (I am so upset that I have now moved from Chester and can’t work with this fantastic team), then find out more about Chester Cathedral’s volunteering opportunities and get applying! Once more, thank you to all those at the cathedral, those in the University of Chester History and Archaeology Department, and to every other volunteer that I worked with – it was a fantastic experience.

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