Bath has some exceptional heritage offerings, but how imaginative and visionary are they in the way they are presented? Emma Clegg focuses on recent, ongoing and imminent developments and finds that they are moving dynamically with the times to provide multiple ways of unlocking the potential of our city’s priceless places to visitors of every background and age.
Why do people travel to visit cities? Why, to experience them in all their diversity. Bath, established as a World Heritage Site in 1987 – alongside international wonders such as The Taj Mahal and the Pyramids of Giza – welcomes up to 1.3 million annual visitors and maintains a city-of-note profile way above its size. In 2001 Bath was added to the transnational World Heritage Site known as the Great Spa Towns of Europe.
Taking a whirlwind historic tour of four of our great heritage assets (on the opposite page), we can see not just some of the outstanding heritage and cultural features of a city, but also defining points in the history of a nation. Every town and city has a history all of its own, but everything is connected, forming a coherent part of a national whole, and Bath is lucky to be rich in the assets that mark significant stages in our country’s history.
All Bath’s city landmarks were created in a specific historical era and that’s what draws the crowds, but they all continue to evolve through time. Museums have always adapted around the culture of the era, notably in 1793 when The Louvre Palace was declared a public institution (after the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789) and for the first time the royal collection was available for all to see its riches. More recently as decolonization, anti-racism and LGBTQIA+ have made their mark on the social consciousness, museums and historic venues have had to scrutinise themselves, espousing the idea of democratic, participatory, and accessible provision as well as openness about a venue’s past.
This has been a definitive factor in the reimagining and planning of our heritage assets in recent years. The Roman Baths first opened to the public in 1897 and they have been excavated, extended and conserved throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. In the process they have been able to take on all these modern perspectives to make history accessible, including the uncovering of the Temple Courtyard in 1981, the introduction of costumed characters in 2012, and audio tours in 2017 (a sophisicated system providing additional layers of commentary for people who want to find out more, and special adaptions and alternatives for people with a wide range of special needs). Most recently we’ve seen the the Archway Project and the opening of the Clore Learning Centre, the Roman Gym and the World Heritage Centre.
The Clore Learning Centre, which opened in June, has sensitively renovated a former Victorian spa laundry building and an area of Roman remains beneath street level to create a centre for schools and groups to find out about history and heritage in a hands-on and accessible way. It includes a space called the Investigation Zone, an atmospheric underground environment set amidst real Roman remains. Here children can explore, investigate and record archaeological materials, becoming mini-archaeologists and mini-curators among real Roman remains.
These structural changes to the visitor experience are all part of protecting our city’s assets and making them relevant to a modern audience. Unless you are a stalwart heritage fiend, history is not well represented by items enclosed in a cabinet in an air-conditioned museum or by a staged historic interior. Fashions in design, presentation and audience experience also shift from decade to decade, never so quickly as in our age of ever-developing technology, constant news feeds and the dominance of social media, all of which have brought seismic changes in the way we communicate and digest information.
These are not just fashions, however; they are adjustments around a modern consciousness. This is particularly true when appealing to an audience of children and young people who have never known life without a mobile phone and broadband on tap, and for whom encountering artefacts behind glass assisted only by typed labels, a dry information guide, and something to colour in no longer fits the bill.
The dramatic changes that have been happening – and are continuing – in our city’s heritage sector cannot be categorised simply as modern updates in a city of note. Architect Eric Parry’s 2011 transformative extension to the Holburne Museum not only brought more exhibition space, disabled access, a café and room for education, but a highly imaginative and whimsical modern back exterior (which had to navigate its way through endless planning applications and considerable local opposition). The extension was built up in layers of glass and moulded ceramic, integrating softly with the greenery of Sydney Gardens beyond, a symphony of old and new.
Then there is the work that has taken place in the Abbey as part of its Footprint project since 2010, which has solved problems and created new facilities in a visionary way. The restoration of the Abbey’s collapsing floor, a precious part of the city’s Georgian heritage; the harnessing of Bath’s hot spring waters to power eco-friendly underfloor heating; the reimagining of a flexible space with the removal of fixed pews; and the creation of a new centre to tell the story of the Abbey’s history (coming this September) is brave, ambitious, inclusive and innovative.
(Above right: The three-storey extension to the Holburne Museum, opened in 2011, provided an extra 800 sqm of gallery space to house the collection, and the use of materials and layering to the façade created a striking visual spectacle)
These changes are forward thinking, designed to appeal to and engage all ages, all interest groups, all backgrounds, and all types of visitor in our modern, representative, eco-aware world. And so they should. But because each development has its own vision and brings so many new experiences, there is a danger that each project – run and presented by its own focused team – is considered as an isolated peak of achievement. But this is not the case; they are all connected.
This is not only because they are in Bath and offer visitor experiences, but because their aims are collaborative and overlapping. The Archway Project and the Footprint Project both harness the city’s hot springs to generate their underfloor heating. The World Heritage Centre, which opened in May this year, offers learning experiences for visitors about the history of the city, and sends people in all directions – discovering hidden details in the Circus and Royal Crescent and the house where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein to walking to Sham Castle and the ‘hanging bogs of Bath’ that back on to Cavendish Road.
The World Heritage Centre’s new mobile app allows people to build bespoke itineraries, collect augmented reality characters and even find golden acorns located around the city. What would our historical figures have thought of this? Ralph Allen, Beau Nash, the John Woods, Jane Austen? I suspect they would all have approved, because these are innovations to preserve the city’s legacy and to give visitors an engrossing experience and a new understanding of the past.
The coherent vision behind all these plans is about rethinking experiences
These projects all also recognise the need to push, explore and uncover – the Roman Baths’ new Roman Gym reveals an area that was previously hidden, taking visitors into the courtyard where Romans worked out to keep fit prior to heading into the Baths, and includes projections showing the exercises they would have done, helping visitors to visualise the life of those times.
The coherent vision behind all these plans is about rethinking experiences. Making them modern, imaginative, interactive, fresh and relevant. Looking ahead, the National Trust is taking on the management of the Assembly Rooms from March 2023, once the Fashion Museum has relocated, and the organisation wants to create an experience that goes right to the heart of why the Rooms were built, transporting visitors to Georgian Bath, as well as exploring the role that the Assembly Rooms can play in the city today.
The Fashion Museum will move from the Assembly Rooms at the end of October this year to the Old Post Office in New Bond Street using grant funding secured from the West of England Joint Committee. The collection will then move to temporary accommodation until the new museum and a purpose-built collections study centre are ready.
These future projects certainly have exemplary standards to follow. While they will bring new vision and energy to a building that exemplified the life of high society in Georgian Bath, and create a new imaginative space for a rich collection of fashion history, both are part of a whole city vision. Bath’s heritage is in the process of updating itself and it is casting its light firmly towards the future.
BATH’S HERITAGE UNDER DEVELOPMENT
The Roman Baths – once a centre of Celtic worship, the site of the Baths became a spa in 60 AD, tapping into hot springs from the Mendip Hills, used by the Romans until 5th century AD. From the 12th century it was remodelled as curative baths; in the 18th century it was the central attraction of a fashionable resort, driving the city’s rapid growth. The first Pump Room opened in 1706. In 1878 the Roman remains were discovered and then uncovered, opening to the public in 1897. The Archway Project was launched in 2016. In 2022 the Baths were confirmed as the 50th most visited attraction in the UK.
Bath Abbey is sited on the sacred land of a convent built in 675 AD. In 973 AD the Saxon Abbey on the same land saw King Edgar crowned King of England. In the 7th century Bath Abbey was founded and in 1088 a new large cathedral was built. Closed by King Henry VIII in 1539, the Abbey was restored in 1620 and again in 1863 by George Gilbert Scott. It was visited by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973 to mark the coronation of Edgar 1000 years before. The pioneering £19.4 million Footprint Project launched in 2010. The Abbey receives half a million visitors annually.
The Upper Assembly Rooms saw the building’s foundation stone laid by architect John Wood the Younger in 1769, and it opened in 1771. It was designed in a U-shape with the central aisle linking the Ball Room, the Octagon and the Tea Room. The hub of social activity in the 18th century, it was attended by hordes of wealthy visitors, playing cards, going to balls and promenading. Jane Austen visited the Assembly Rooms during 1801–1805 and wrote about them in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. The National Trust is taking over the management from 2023, and has plans to provide a transformed experience of this notable building.
The Museum of Costume (renamed the Fashion Museum in 2007) opened in the basement of the Assembly Rooms in 1963, founded by Doris Langley Moore, who gave her private costume collection to the city. The museum focuses on fashionable dress from the late 16th century to the present day – including work by Mary Quant, Giorgio Armani and Alexander McQueen – and has more than 100,000 objects. The museum welcomes 100,000 visitors annually. It will be leaving its current location in 2023 and will create a new home at the Old Post Office in New Bond Street, opening in 2024.
RECOLLECTIONS ON THE FOOTPRINT AND ARCHWAY PROJECTS FROM GEOFF RICH OF FCB STUDIOS
It has been such a privilege for FCB Studios to be involved in these projects for our home city – two great schemes that are fully focused on sustaining wonderful historic buildings and opening up their amazing heritage and stories to current and future users in radical ways. Additionally here we were dealing with very important layers of Georgian, Saxon and Roman archaeology – and employing the heat of UK’s only thermal hot springs too! Of course proposing this level of intervention and change to important heritage buildings creates immense challenges in the very centre of a World Heritage City. The technical complexity is very high, the projects are expensive, access for construction teams is difficult, and there are many important consents and permissions to secure. The realisation of these projects has only been possible through the sustained efforts of many people over the past decade including designers, engineers, contractors, and of course brave and committed clients! At the end of the process a lot of the effort is invisible; however hopefully all the effort put into these projects will help to change peoples’ lives for the better in Bath for generations to come.
Featured image: The Roman Baths Clore Learning Centre – used for pre-booked school and community groups – offers three state-of-the-art learning rooms