This was a conference held at the Royal Institute of British Architects in February. The setting had been chosen with a distinct intention of at once soothing and daunting the delegates. If you ever happen to be in the vicinity of Broadcasting House in Portland Place merely venture northwards about a l00m to Number 66. The exterior of RIBA is a marvel of a Grade II Listed 1930s building designed by Grey Wornum. The Jarvis Auditorium on the lower ground floor, where the presentations and panel discussions were held is a spacious comfortable hall with tiered seating, floor to ceiling wooden panelling and state of the art audio-visual equipment. This headquarters should go on your list of places to visit when next in London - access is free and the cafe with outdoor terrace, bar, restaurant and bookshop should not be missed.
The two days were hosted by English Heritage and were devoted to the discussion of issues to do with Blue Plaques. It provided an opportunity to have a say on a national level- to inform guidance and policy which is being devised by English Heritage and to share experiences with other interested groups. We discussed selection criteria, plaque design and inscription, historical research, consents, promotion and the development of schemes. For many delegates it was successful in providing an impetus to begin a scheme; for others like The Ipswich Society it was a way of validating practices which were already well advanced. Many of the speakers were from the English Heritage plaques team and a studious and well informed group they were - historians mainly and researchers of the first order and fine communicators in their diverse fields.
Other eminent knights, professors and doctors led and summarised in plenary sessions, followed by workshops where it was possible to share ideas and examine closely the activities which resulted in the celebration of people and places in such profusion around Britain. The panel discussion was extremely interesting because it enabled individuals to present five-minute expositions about their areas of expertise. The questions and comments which followed these sessions were fruitful.
David McLaughlin, the conservation architect from Bath, informed us of a method by which commemorations of the recipients of the plaques could become regular or annual events. The hook which was built into the casting of some Bath plaques would have a wreath attached to it on birthdays or other memorable occasions. It meant that people with an interest - not just the civic society- could be reminded of the subject from time to time. The discussion on materials used for plaques fascinated many - especially when the cost of ceramic plaques was mentioned. Our practice of using roundels made in the same materials as road signs received a mixed response. However, the cost element and life expectancy of ours surprised many.
There were opportunities for the Society to show how well developed our scheme is - at the same time on a modest scale. The clearest interest was in our brochure - soon to be superseded - which may feature prominently in the English Heritage guidance and policy, to be published soon. (Editor: Yes, it does!) One member of their team, Dr Susan Skedd, has expressed a great interest in the design, production and costs of the brochure and there have been e-mails from other societies on the subject.
The Society is well regarded and we placed ourselves in a consultative position which may burgeon. The conference was certainly stimulating and successful.