The York Street vaults lie on the periphery of the Roman baths in Bath, England. They form the southern perimeter of this Grade 1 listed site, but they lie beyond the boundary of the museum ‘experience’. The vaults, rich in Roman archeology, sit in darkness, uncurated, unframed for the tourist gaze, uncommodified, crudely maintained and largely unseen (and unsuspected) by visitors. Yet these spaces have much to teach us about the nature of heritage and authenticity, and they offer a new lense through which to view the spatial and cultural value of the Roman baths themselves.
The “estranged space” project* examines the spatial and theoretical relationships between the public (curated) realm of the museum and the uncurated, haphazard accumulation of the York Street vaults. Close examination of the commodified centre and the largely unknown periphery reveals a tense relationship between the two zones that could be described as one of estrangement.
The 1964 Charter of Venice declares that historic monuments should be handed on to future generations “in the full richness of their authenticity” without describing what the term “authenticity” actually means. The 1994 Nara Document, the result of an attempt by UNESCO to define the word in heritage terms, introduced the notion that cultural heritage has both “tangible and intangible expression”.
The York Street vaults, lying on both the spatial and heritage periphery, occupy an awkward position in relation to the terms described within Nara. The vaults clearly qualify as cultural heritage because of the extent of Roman remains and their inclusion within the boundary of the Grade 1 listing. Yet their condition and spatial aesthetic do not sit within generally accepted codes of what heritage is, or what it should look like. Consideration of the status and meaning of the vaults becomes, therefore, a value judgement; the significance of the vaults’ tangible and intangible expression becomes open to interpretation.
The peripheral status of the vaults offers a challenge to heritage orthodoxy. These spaces have never been handled within the terms set out in UNESCO ordinances – and yet they have accumulated a character which makes them a unique expression of human occupation, mixing the Roman, the medieval, the Georgian, the Victorian and the contemporary in an unself-conscious collision. These qualities, and the consequences of neglect and ad hoc interventions, are being explored through light, sound and film installations; indeed, the project seeks to re-present the vaults through art practices which legitimate artefacts from all eras without privileging the Roman
The intention is to prompt a reassessment of the relative value of the spatial zones of the baths and the curatorial values which apply to each of them. The contention is that the abnormal other, the back-of-house zone at the site’s unseen periphery, can provide an alternative reading to the wider site - and that the vaults can, in fact, be considered as a dynamic source of “contemporary archaeology” and not merely the mute inferior of the tourist zone.
* The project is being conducted with colleagues from University of the Arts London and the University of Plymouth.
Littlefield, D. (2011, October). The York Street Vaults; learning from the periphery of heritage. Paper presented at Peripheries, AHRA conference