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Friday, October 14, 2016 - 07:00

For many years, members of the heritage community have been talking about establishing guidelines for the blue plaque world. For a variety of reasons none have yet been set but renewed efforts appear to be emerging in Johannesburg. To aid the discussion we thought it would be helpful to publish the results of a survey we conducted during February and March 2014. 

The purpose of the questionnaire was to get a preliminary idea of how people would feel about the establishment of an enabling body for plaquing across the country. Key questions included whether or not minimum 'blue plaque criteria' should be set, if yes how these should be set, who should approve a blue plaque application, what role should an enabling body play, how this body should be funded etc.

If you have any thoughts on the matter please add them to the comments section at the bottom of the article.

2014 Blue Plaques Survey Results

Should formal minimum criteria be set for a site to receive a blue plaque?

44 questionnaires were submitted. Every person agreed that minimum criteria should be set (some qualified their answers). The follow up question asked respondents to explain their answer. Below are a few responses:

  • As a tourist, when I travel, I'd like to know the meaning behind something. It will be confusing if everyone does his or her own thing
  • Otherwise the plaque is meaningless. Every building could have one.
  • Yes, they need to be special, so go to deserving places, not every B&B that wants a bit of publicity...
  • I would like to see a uniform plaque as was the old national monument plaque
  • A qualified yes. It would be useful to have basic criteria governing the awarding of Blue Plaque status, but there should be a mechanism to ""override"" this if there are other compelling reasons. It cannot merely be a scientific measure.
  • The building/site/event should be at least 60 years old, to qualify as a possible listed building/site/ event
  • There should be minimum standards set in line with standing legislation as well as 'industry practice', it would allow for a more detailed approach to the entire process itself.
  • Any prior modifications should not have destoyed the intrinsic heritage value of the building/ site.
  • This would make it easy for Citizen forums, Ratepayers Associations to know whether a blue plaque is warranted and whether it can be requested and possibly in some cases demanded.
  • At present this is a local initiative. Reasonable standardisation would be preferable, but local initiatives not be lost
  • If there aren't minimum criteria the whole thing could be devalued.
  • Unique and interesting places attract attention. A blue plaque can be an indication of such a status. If blue plaques are placed on too many sites it will lead to disinterest of the public/tourist.
  • As long as local and community historical interest is also taken into consideration, and the focus is not only on national or international significance.
  • Provided there is room for special concession sites too, approved by an established authority
  • If the blue plaque is to contain essential information and be meaningful and local inhabitants, it is important that they should confirm to formal minimum criteria.
  • Of course there must be norms and standards. They will almost certainly have to be very different iro urban/rural sites and for cultural/natural heritage aspects - i.e. four categories at least, and there may be others such as for the purely aesthetic mixed sites - cf ICOMOS/IUCN handling of mixed cultural and natural heritage sites in the UNESCO WHS programme.
  • The site should have heritage significance but the criteria should not be to stringent. The advantage that blue plaques have over declaration under the NHRA is that they are more flexible and can be tailored to fit the history of an area/community. They are as much about the description of local history as they are about the identification of heritage sites
  • You need to subscribe to certain criteria or the plaque will become senseless
  • Flexibility should be allowed for in the rules, so that unique situations are not lost in red tape
  • People will be looking out for blue plaques (if the programme is successful) and they will expect to have their attention drawn to interesting sites. Only if they are consistently rewarded for their trouble will they continue to look out for the plaques. That is not to say that there should not be a wide range of qualities that should be considered.
  • Everyone has an area of individual interest, that is of particular importance to them. An overseeing body would prevent the plaquing of un-noteworthy sites / sites not of general interest.
  • Yes, blue plaques should be meaningful and relevant.

If criteria are to be set how should this be done? (multiple selection was allowed)

1) A group of heritage experts should compile criteria and then invite comment from individuals and organisations across the country - 79.5% of respondents selected this option 

2) The criteria for significance in the National Heritage Resources Act should be used - 41% of respondents selected this option

3) Respondents could also choose 'other' and submit suggestions / general comments...

  • As no formal criteria exist at present, a panel should be established to frame these. Whilst National Heritage Resources Act criteria should be taken into account, these should not be prescriptive.
  • The NHRA criteria are too stringent. If these are applied to blue plaques then sites of local significance and history that do not necessarily meet the criteria will remain unknown. Sites that have been changed over time and that materially do not have significance should still be plaqued to mark change
  • I've ticked off both - only because I don't think it can be one or the other - but a combined effort. The criteria in the NHRA would not be adequate. As long as no one's heritage is left out in the process.
  • A combination of criteria are necessary - NHRA significance is a "no brainer" - other meritorious situations could be evaluated by the "group of heritage experts" - it should not be "open house"
  • I think both should be applied as the criteria of the NHRA can be either limiting in some instances and too vague in others.
  • The potential for community participation is critical
  • Take a leaf out of the way UNESCO handles these matters. Pointless to reinvent the wheel. National Heritage Resources Act is completely inadequate in its provision for Natural Heritage Sites. Although it purports to include them it provides absolutely no detail for doing so.
  • The group should include more than just the heritage community - the Geological Society for example, provided a valuable addition to the range of plaqued sites. I am sure that there are many other organisations / areas of interest that could be consulted, even on an ad-hoc basis as advisors for a particular site.

Who should consider / approve an application for a blue plaque?

Three options were given (multiple selection was allowed even though this is not an obvious response)

  1. A local panel of experts and enthusiasts using its own criteria - 22% of respondents selected this option
  2. A local panel of experts and enthusiasts affiliated to a national blue plaques organisation that publishes minimum criteria - 70% of respondents selected this option
  3. A national panel of experts with representatives from each province - 14% of respondents selected this option

There was an option to comment on this question. The following responses were received:

  • Local is lekker but needs guidance and standards
  • There may need to be differences between the regions/provinces because of the varied history of existing Blue Plaques. This will have to be worked out pragmatically.
  • Blue plaques should not be confused with national heritage site status, but in the absence of a controlling body, it is difficult to see how formal minimum criteria can be implemented. Perhaps the right approach is to consider and establish some kind of guiding framework, register the blue plaques, and make it necessary to conform to standards in order to be allowed to use the blue registered plaque.
  • The panel should most definitely be local. Buildings that receive plaques should be enrolled on the local heritage inventory and the information revealed by research should be entered. If there is no inventory, blue plaques could well be the beginning of it.
  • A short list of nominated sites could be presented to a national organisation in order to ensure that the plaques are only awarded when objectively judged as of merit

If an enabling body was to be established what role(s) should it play?

A number of options were given. These are presented below (high to low)

  1. Establish and publish minimum blue plaque criteria - 93%
  2. Maintain a database of blue plaque sites - 84%
  3. Use technology to map blue plaque trails - 80%
  4. Seek publicity to promote the prestige of the blue plaque brand - 77%
  5. Compile and publish a national list of experienced blue plaque manufacturers and installers - 72%
  6. Compile and publish a national list of experienced researchers - 70%
  7. Compile blue plaque pamphlets and coffee table books - 63%
  8. Fundraising - 56%
  9. Publish pricing guidelines - 55%
  10. Project manage selected blue plaque installations and campaigns - 52%
  11. Compile and publish a national list of event organisers to assist with unveiling events - 45%
  12. I don't see why a national body is necessary - 7%

Under 'Other' the following response was submitted:

  • Many small towns don't have the necessary professionals to do the work of researching and installing plaques. Small towns should be assisted in setting up a group of locals, however small, to take on this heritage task. There is almost always a person who is interested in the history of a town who can be contacted. These people often simply need some assistance from outside. Every town has sites that would be of interest.

If an enabling body was to be established how should it be funded?

This was not an easy question to answer as the purpose of the enabling body had not been defined. A number of options were provided (results high to low):

  1. Fundraising and sponsorship - 66%
  2. An adminstration fee should be built into the guideline pricing for each new plaque - 55%
  3. Memorabilia sales -  35%
  4. Owners of a property with a blue plaque should be encouraged to pay an annual subscription fee or make an annual donation - 30%
  5. Researchers, manufacturers, installers, events organisers etc. should pay an annual subscription fee to be part of the 'National Lists' - 20%

Under 'Other' the following comments / suggestions were received:

  • Lotto Funding (a few responses)
  • I think the 'body' wanting the Blue plaque must fund its creation.
  • I believe that owners should pay a one off fee if they are able. Fees that go on into the future will not work and people are not likely to want to commit to long term arrangements. The motivation for installing a plaque will often come from an individual with an interest in local history or architecture and they are seldom in a position to pay for plaques. I believe the system will have to work, to some extent, by cross subsidisation of plaques and by fundraising and a once of fee for those who can pay.
  • Maybe owners should pay once-off. Change of ownership could be problematic.
  • I cant see owners paying anything. Some merely own the building but have little interest in heritage buildings on the whole.They may feel pressurised into having a plaque. However with 'education' the prestige of a plaque may be a draw-card.
  • I think if the researchers, and others who give freely of their time to help the process get charged to be involved, that would be deeply unfair, as they are not the beneficiaries, and are already giving to the process. Owners of really interesting sites might resist allowing the plaques, if made to pay.
  • Funding should be sourced from Depts of Arts Culture and Heritage, as well as Tourism, as they cover this and the plaques will benefit what they are doing (a number of similar responses)
  • Some buildings may be worthy of status but owners cannot afford a plaque
  • I think annual subscription fees are probably the most feasible way to fund this, however it should be government funded in my opinion, as it deals with our national heritage.
  • Building owners should pay an initial fee, only, to cover the demonstrable costs, as appropriate. The administration of ongoing charges could be a nightmare, resulting in potential plaque removals, damage...., due to building owner changes.
  • As most historical interest groups are generally volunteer organisations we do not try to make profit out of the process. Clearly plaque replacement due to wear and tear, damage, etc would be chargeable.
  • Nobody will want a Blue Plaque if they have to pay for it, and even worse would be if they had to pay an annual subscription. Awardees should be encouraged to contribute to their award, but it should not be mandatory or expected, it should be voluntary.

A selection of general comments that were received:

  • Funding is a crucial issue and should be at the top of the agenda when the establishment of a blue plaque body is under consideration
  • Recommend getting a Cultural Heritage Blue Plaques system functioning more widely and with greater regional buy-in, before trying to extend to include Natural Heritage within the programme. For the latter you cannot proceed at all without involving all biodiversity conservation agencies state and private sector and that will be a nightmare.
  • Whilst I do think that a national body is necessary, care must be taken that it does not turn into a vast bureaucratic entity that gobbles up money and does nothing much! Members of any such body should be volunteers - and only be remunerated for travel expenses.
  • The Blue Plaques need to be maintained - also slight cost involved
  • National campaign to heighten awareness of Blue Plaques [is needed]
  • BPSA should be an organisation that sets standards, assists with technical issues and approves plaque wording and choice of site. There should be consultation with the people who have been doing the plaques for many years to find out what problems need to be resolved. I think the project is an excellent idea and one of the best ways to popularise and draw attention to our resources.

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