Sir Neil Cossons has been active in the fields of industrial archaeology and heritage since the early 1960s. As Director of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum from 1971 to 1983, he was the initiator of the First International Congress on the Conservation of Industrial Monuments held at Ironbridge in 1973 and out of which TICCIH evolved three years later. He was the founder of the Ironbridge Institute, a joint teaching and research institute of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum and the University of Birmingham.
From 1983 to 1986 Neil Cossons was the Director of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and for fourteen years Director of the Science Museum, London. He has served as a non-executive director of British Waterways Board.
He was knighted in 1994 for his work in museums and heritage.
From 2000 until 2007 he was Chairman of English Heritage, the United Kingdom Government’s principal adviser on the historic environment of England. He was involved in the preparation of the United Kingdom Government’s Tentative List of World Heritage sites, published in 1999, and has contributed to several World Heritage nominations. Since 2008 he has been Chairman of the Expert Advisory Committee of the Kyushu Yamaguchi World Heritage Nomination in Japan.
A chairman, chief executive and board member of standing he has advised governments, museums and heritage agencies in a number of countries, conducted peer reviews of scholarship and research, chaired architectural selection panels, and published and broadcast widely on industrial history and archaeology and conservation.
Sir Cossons keynote is entitled ‘Rubble Without a Cause’:
Rubble without a Cause
There is a growing passion for ruins. This voguish new obsession extends beyond the debate on the picturesque and the sublime and Piranesian allegories of degeneration into a more granular rapture – with abandoned places, nightmarish urban decay and toxic industrial sites. It is a gritty fetish – dilettante voyeurism at the periphery, through steam punk and ruin porn, into more hardcore encounters with the depravity of industrial and neighbourhood decline.
Landscapes of iron and steel are part of this. They present provocative challenges. Preservation for their intrinsic value is tough, adaptive reuse as art venues tends inexorably towards the dissembling, but there may be deeper and more cerebral meanings in which the putrefaction of decay becomes the single and most distinctive attribute these places can offer to tomorrow.
For this there is an emergent following – of explorers seeking Armageddon landscapes, and tour operators offering excursions to the unknown, the inaccessible and the treacherous. If popularisation poaches this golden egg then there will always be still more dilapidation in the outer reaches of the post-industrial world beyond the corrupting sanitisation of tourism.
In this lecture Neil Cossons explores the options and dilemmas of landscapes where the powerful texture of decomposition is the attraction – rust, yes; romance, undoubtedly if that’s your bag; but regeneration and the realism that has to attend it is another matter. Beyond any conventional means of conservation, the future for visitors to these lethally unmanaged places sits uneasily with the bland fail-safe realm of visitor attractions. And, in a world where heritage is a four-letter word – jobs – the notion of places that attract precisely because they challenge the conventions of accessibility and regeneration can be difficult to grasp. That all this is culturally repugnant and politically suicidal is, after all, an inherent part of the allure.