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A holistic view of heritage

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Alumna Isabel Assaly on why she doesn’t believe in preserving for preserving's sake.

A holistic view of heritage

The Grade 1-listed All Saints' church in Benington under construction by The Churches Conservation Trust.

Credit: Historic England

All Saints’ church in the Lincolnshire village of Benington had been lying empty for 15 years when Isabel Assaly – an alumna of The Bartlett’s Institute for Sustainable Heritage – started to transform it into a thriving community asset.

As Head of Regeneration and Consultancy at The Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), Assaly has been involved with giving the Grade 1 listed medieval building, and the community it serves, a new lease of life. All Saints’ is soon to relaunch as a community hub, where some of the local social facilities that the village has lost will be reestablished.

We say: don’t look at historic churches that have fallen out of use as a place of worship, but as a primary community space.

Isabel Assaly

“It’s about using historic assets in a very positive sense,” says Assaly of the CCT’s approach. “We say: don’t look at historic churches that have fallen out of use as a place of worship, but as a primary community space. We’re conserving them to be used, and that’s more important than ever. We have a real obligation to make sure our sites are used by everyone.”

That approach sets the CCT apart from other organisations that are “focused on preserving for the sake of preserving”, she says, adding: “We’re challenging perceptions of what’s permissible in a church.”

A holistic view of heritage

Isabel Assaly (centre) on site at All Saints' church.

Credit: Historic England

An interdisciplinary, holistic view

Assaly took up the role at CCT seven years ago, after completing a part-time MSc in Sustainable Heritage at The Bartlett. “It really transformed my outlook and understanding of heritage,” she says of the programme. “It gave me an interdisciplinary, holistic view.”

Particularly enlightening, she says, was the course’s international perspective. “We’ve got a Euro-centric attitude of how we manage assets. In this country, the common approach is to equate the significance and value of an asset with its age. But in some Asian countries, the significance of an asset doesn’t change if you pull down a 15th-century pagoda and build a new one. Knowing that helps you have more balanced view and gets rid of judgements of what is right and wrong.”

At the trust, Assaly’s priority is identifying the needs of a community and using the church as vehicle for change. The church is then adapted for those new uses. All the CCT’s projects have been in excess of £2m and, as well as securing investment, the trust develops business plans, manages construction and, in most cases, runs the sites as community enterprises.

“The work we do is more focused on transforming communities, creating new jobs, putting in place care for the elderly and other support services, and giving people a place where they can connect to other people, so that they’re not so socially isolated,” says Assaly. “We’re trying to make things more fair and equitable.”

The Institute for Sustainable Heritage is solving real-world cultural heritage problems through groundbreaking, cross-disciplinary research and teaching for future heritage leaders. It is part of The Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources (BSEER) in UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more: https://ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/heritage

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