Spring 2002 Issue 40
People watching: Monitoring heritage hospitality functions in historic houses
Sponsored by English Heritage, my research is into risk and the impact of special events (weddings, corporate receptions, dinners, etc.) on the contents and decorative finishes in historic houses. This has meant attending a number of functions at my case study sites over the last two years. My article outlines the reasons for using these case studies, the approach taken, the issues raised and what the initial results suggest.
Assessing risk to contents and interiors during functions is a topical area of research. In today's economic climate, pressure is being exerted on managers of historic properties to supplement admission income with sources of revenue that are not dependent on visitor numbers. The benefits of heritage hospitality are often immediate and tangible, as exclusive use of a unique location offering a high standard of service and facilities can command substantial hire charges. Conjure up, however, a picture of 100 people within an historic interior, crowded closely together, sipping sticky cocktails and tucking into flaky canapés, and most conservators will pale visibly. But just how risky is this in reality? Could we be worrying over nothing at all?
The case studies
English Heritage Hospitality was launched at Chiswick House (figure 1) in 1998. One of the finest examples of Palladian architecture in England, Chiswick House in west London, was built in the early 18th century for the 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694-1753). Eltham Palace (figure 2) in south-east London opened as a heritage hospitality venue in 1999. The house is the creation of Stephen Courtauld (1883-1967), a member of the successful family of textile manufacturers. In the 1930s Courtauld and his wife Virginia incorporated the remains of an important medieval royal palace into a lavish Art Deco residence.
The overall objective of the research is to develop a model that decision-makers can use to analyse and more accurately identify, quantify and rank the potential risks to collections from holding different types of heritage hospitality functions. The primary purpose of monitoring actual hospitality events is to test this theoretical risk assessment model. The use of case studies can provide both quantitative and qualitative evidence. In particular, case studies supply data to feed into the 'risk equation' that defines risk as the product of the probability of an unwanted event (e.g. wine spillage on an absorbent surface) and the magnitude of the consequence of that unwanted event (e.g. the severity of the damage). To calculate the likelihood of something happening (e.g. an object being broken) in the future, it is useful to know the number of times a similar occurrence has happened in the past. To estimate the consequence of that single event or the impact of cumulative occurrences, the monitoring of objects, surfaces and finishes is helpful.
In addition, the adequacy of current protective measures (e.g. druggets on floors, Perspex covers for the tops of furniture) can be monitored. The effectiveness of current guidelines issued to clients and contractors (caterers, lighting and marquee hire companies, etc.) can also be assessed. This will inform one intention of the research - to propose appropriate strategies for the management of risk and the protection of contents during hospitality events. Information from the case studies will provide data to compare with the results of monitoring functions outside English Heritage Hospitality control, e.g. in privately managed or National Trust houses. The monitoring of functions also allows an assessment of the increased level of risk (if any) of holding such events as compared to the 'acceptable' risk of normal opening arrangements.
Monitoring the impact of functions
A personal log of observations made while attending functions of differing scenarios (e.g. wedding ceremony, drinks reception with canapés, sit-down dinner, dinner-dance with marquee) and covering different components of functions (set-up, event proper, take-down). The purpose has been to monitor guest-flow and activity as well as caterer and supplier movements through the properties and to watch how people interact with their surroundings. Near misses and accidents have been logged. Post-function report forms completed by on-site staff have also been incorporated into the research.
Wear-and-tear monitoring of a variety of objects, surfaces and decorative finishes at both case study sites. Using observations from the first functions, objects were chosen because of their proximity to function activity as well as their potentially fragile nature. A few objects were chosen as controls, i.e. of similar material but not in a vulnerable location. Wear-and-tear recording forms (figure 3) have been compiled which are updated using acetate overlays on colour photographs during monthly visits to both case study sites.
Use and interpretation of information already routinely being produced by the case study sites. This includes environmental monitoring (especially relative humidity and pest activity).
However, functions can also have an indirect impact on collections and contents of historic properties and so the research also includes:
Monitoring of press interest in functions at properties. A high-profile incident can damage an organisation's reputation, lead to lenders withdrawing loans, or members (where applicable) not renewing membership; this last consequence impacts on resources available for collections care.
Talking to staff at a property to gauge their attitude to functions and the effect of working long-hours on their motivation, morale and effectiveness. Lack of motivation, for instance, can affect the amount and quality of time spent on collections conservation.
Talking to staff from different disciplines within the organisation (e.g. hospitality managers and marketing managers, conservation and curatorial staff) to assess their perception of the risks involved and their overall attitude towards heritage hospitality. Without a consensus approach to assessing the risks of heritage hospitality, effective decision-making is hampered to the detriment of the collections.
Issues arising from monitoring
Several issues arise from the monitoring carried out so far. Firstly, the practicality of monitoring an event where you need to be in a position to see clearly what is going on without being so obvious that the guests notice and become upset at your presence. Being amongst the guests, albeit unobtrusively, you become part of the 'experiment'. What do you do if you see something about to happen? Intervene or not? Is it better to record a 'near-miss' than an actual accident?
So far the monitoring exercise has produced little evidence of actual damage. If one is unable to use the 'classical' approach to quantifying probability by using the relative frequency (the number of times it has happened before) of an unwanted event, an alternative approach has to be found. The 'subjective' method uses expert opinion to quantify probability but issues of the 'calibration' of that expert judgement raises problems.
The monitoring of wear-and-tear on objects and surfaces raises issues of consistency - between different recorders, or even the same recorder at different times. Photographs are often used to address the lack of consistency in written descriptive terms for damage or deterioration, but photographs to record object change need to be taken under consistent conditions.
The interpretation of wear-and-tear monitoring can be difficult. Breakage or damage during a function is usually both visible and attributable. On-going deterioration, on the other hand, is not immediately obvious and is often unattributable. How can the contribution of functions to the rate of deterioration be distinguished from that of normal visiting patterns?
Calculating the impact of damage and deterioration raises questions of conflicting perceptions of damage, the value (cultural significance) and valuation (financial value) of objects, surfaces and decorative finishes, all of which are areas for research in their own right. Monitoring wear-and-tear in the way described above can only really indicate visible or surface change in condition. Does it matter what is happening beneath the surface?
A number of qualitative observations can be made as a result of the monitoring exercise so far:
Of primary importance is having sufficient trained staff on duty to closely supervise the set-up/take-down and the event itself.
The riskiest time is during set-up/take-down of a function, especially if the set-up time is restricted because the event is running back-to-back with normal opening, and if the take-down doesn't happen until the early hours of the morning, everyone will be tired.
Contractors should be given comprehensive guidelines, outlining what they must and must not do and strict compliance ensured.
A few carefully-chosen contractors who are used to working within historic interiors, who are familiar with the property and its restrictions, and who use the same personnel each time, will reduce the risk of accidents.
Functions are less risky when the clients can only choose from a small number of well-rehearsed scenarios and where the risks of these activities have already been assessed, mitigated and there are precautions in place to manage the residual risk.
The reactions of distracted and sometimes inebriated guests during a function can be hard to predict and therefore difficult to manage.
Protection used on surfaces needs to be adequate and appropriate so that it is both unobtrusive and does not put at risk what it is designed to protect.
Over the last two years, visible and attributable impact of heritage hospitality on case study site interiors has mainly consisted of spillage on floors (e.g. wine/food on stone) and some soiling of surfaces (e.g. make-up on removable covers of reproduction furniture). Whereas a heritage hospitality manager would argue that impacts of this type are to be expected, are acceptable and indeed repairable, a conservator or curator might see that same 'damage' in quite a different light. Finding an acceptable balance between the benefits and costs of functions is difficult and much depends on an organisation's core objectives. However, an initial conclusion presents itself. The current risk mitigation and management strategies implemented by English Heritage Hospitality are, on the whole, working for the type and frequency of current event scenarios. How changing any of the variables (number of staff, type of events, frequency of functions, choice and control of contractors, etc.) affects the level of impact, will be the subject of further study.