What heritage means to me: Chris Ferguson

Chris Ferguson sits at a table
Chris Ferguson, curatorial director at Auckland Castle Auckland Castle
Chris Ferguson, curatorial director at Auckland Castle, tells us about the mammoth heritage project taking place in Bishop Auckland, and why he loves it so much.

What does heritage mean to you?

While it could simply be all the things you would traditionally think of: castles, historic buildings, museums, it’s not always that tangible. Heritage is about a personal connection: what an artifact or building makes someone feel, and how it makes them reflect on where we are now.

What’s it like being curatorial director at Auckland Castle?

[quote]“Heritage is about a personal connection: what an artifact or building makes someone feel, and how it makes them reflect on where we are now.”[/quote]

Auckland Castle is a medieval British episcopal palace, home to the Prince Bishops of Durham for over 800 years, and was badly affected in the Civil War. It was then completely restored in the late 1700s. It was a private house before the property was acquired four years ago by the Auckland Castle Trust, and opened for the public to enjoy.

We are a heritage site that is over 1,000 years old and has amazing stories to tell, and yet none of it has been told before. My job is to bring those stories to life, and make it somewhere that everyone wants to go.

It’s just brilliant. I feel incredibly lucky to be doing it.

What’s happening at Auckland Castle?

We're creating, basically, four major heritage and museum projects all at the same time. The scale is huge.

Thanks to National Lottery funding, we’re restoring the palace and building a new, national museum, working in partnership with galleries from across the UK, to tell the story of how faith has shaped our national heritage.

The palace houses paintings by artist Francisco de Zurbarán, which are the inspiration behind a new Spanish art gallery and nearby research centre, which will be run in partnership with Durham University.  

We’re also creating a gallery of mining art, celebrating mining communities and their part in the creative heritage of the North East.

The project is so, so exciting for Bishop Auckland. There’s been so much support for what we're trying to achieve. It's just brilliant.

What are the challenges of such a large-scale project?

We’re trying to deliver this combined heritage for people from a standing start. In another heritage site, there’d be established things there – like visitors! The ambition is to attract people to Bishop Auckland and contribute to the local economy, and we’re seeing positive impacts already.

What made you want to work in heritage?

I grew up in Northumberland, and when I was a kid my mum used to take me to Hadrian's Wall. I would spend my weekends running up and down hills and over Roman archaeology. I loved it. So when I grew up I wanted to get involved in heritage and argue for why it’s important.

Do you have favourite piece of UK heritage?

I have a really personal connection with Durham Cathedral, and as an early Medievalist, that fact that Saint Cuthbert is there is amazing. You can wander round the cathedral and see the way the last 1,000 years have evolved in that space. It's quite moving.

[quote]“I have a really personal connection with Durham Cathedral. You can wander round the cathedral and see the way the last 1,000 years have evolved in that space. It's quite moving.”[/quote]

Why do you think heritage is important?

Heritage is so important for society at large. It has a real connection to now, and impacts how people interact in their daily lives and perceive their shared social and cultural history.

Who's your favourite historical figure?

It's probably - and this is such a nerdy answer - Justianian and Theodora, the Byzantine emperor and empress.

What's your favourite artwork?

The helmet from the ship burial at Sutton Hoo. It's on display in Gallery 41 at the British Museum.

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