Although most people probably know me best as the former chief executive of English Heritage and director of the Museum of London, I like to see myself as an historian and archaeologist rather than an administrator. I passionately believe that our past informs and shapes our future, and that to make a great future for everyone we need to understand and care for our past.
Ever since I was a child I have been investigating history; some of my earliest efforts digging in my parent’s garden discovered important Roman remains. After reading History at university and completing an MA and PhD I have devoted my career to working with history, museums, archaeology and heritage always trying to explain why history matters.
Historic Royal Palaces
In 1989 I was appointed Curator of Historic Royal Palaces with responsibility for the presentation, archaeology, building conservation and maintenance and display of the six unoccupied royal palaces. In the 8 years I held the post I was responsible for a number of major restoration projects, including the completion of the fire damage at Hampton Court, the restoration of the King’s Privy Garden there and the building of the new Jewel House for the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London.
Museum of London
Before April 2002 I ran the Museum of London, the world’s largest city museum. There a dynamic exhibition and gallery refurbishment programme increased visitors to nearly 400,000 a year. The museum’s 300-strong archaeological unit made major archaeological discoveries. In February 2002 we opened a new archaeological research centre in Hackney the London Archaeological Archive and Research centre LAARC and in 2003 an £11 million new extension and entrance.
I am currently the Chief Executive of English Heritage the body that the government set up to advise on England’s historic environment. We are the institutional descendants of the Ancient Monuments Department of the Office of Works set up in 1912. My time at EH has been devoted to finding ways of making heritage protection fairer and more effective; and making sure that our wonderful heritage plays a positive role in improving the quality of people’s lives. As protecting heritage is a technical process, in fact part of England’s planning system, I have spent a lot of time over the last ten years working on improving heritage protection law, government planning guidance and working on training projects with central and local government. I know this sounds unglamorous, but it is essential if English society is to effectively identify what is important and protect it for future generations.
Underpinning my work at EH has been a fierce determination to develop its intellectual and professional expertise. English Heritage is an expert organisation and relies entirely on the knowledge and experience of its staff. As a consequence I’ve been really keen on developing a research strategy and conservation principles; the development of new research techniques; the publication of groundbreaking research; major research excavations and collaborative research projects in a wide range of disciplines.
English Heritage also manages the English part of the National Heritage Collection of ancient monuments and historic buildings. These are over 420 sites that belong to the government ranging from Stonehenge to Dover Castle. I have set out to achieve three things with these: to make sure that every one of them has modern, clear and engaging interpretation, is presented appropriately and has suitable visitor facilities; to make sure that they are in good condition and that we know how much we will need to spend to keep them in good condition; and to eliminate the financial operating deficit for opening the sites to the public. Over the last six years great progress has been made on two of these ambitions: the operating deficit is down to £2m from over £8m a year; membership numbers are up from 300,00 to one million; more than 160 sites have been redisplayed with new interpretation and exhibitions. But the maintenance deficit is growing because of the appalling financial settlements we have had from government. Currently the deficit is at around £60m.
I’m also very keen that everything we do is based on solid intelligence. And this has led to a series of initiatives:
- The first was Heritage Counts, the annual state of the historic environment report now in its eleventh year. This is a compendium of heritage data gathered so that we can begin to discern trends and argue for the nation’s heritage from an empirical base.
- The second has been the gradual development of Heritage at Risk which started as a list of buildings at risk in London and is now moving to a comprehensive list of all designated heritage at risk across the country.
- The third and most recent is the creation of the National Heritage Protection Plan. This is a plan that identifies what the most important heritage is, what the threats are to it and what mitigations are likely to be effective. This process now drives our budgeting decisions.
Over the last four years a number of major historic sites have been purchased to save them; Ditherington Flax Mill in Shrewsbury, the world’s first Iron framed building; Apethorpe Hall, a very important seventeenth century country house at risk and the Birmingham manufactory J.W. Evans a unique Victorian factory containing a complete archive. There is more information about my work in this area on the Saving Buildings page.
Writing and academic Work
Fundamental to my interests is researching and writing about English buildings. My very first foray into this area was stimulated by my school, a wonderful medieval castle redesigned by Sir John Vanbrugh. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Kimbolton Castle, something that was later published by Country Life.
However my first academic work, for my MA, was on Hampton Court, and it was my Courtauld Institute MA report (that won a distinction) that set me on the course to write my PhD on Henry VIII’s palaces. This was published in 1993 as a book. Since then I have been very involved in court history and the history and archaeology of royal residences.
In 2014 I published a new history of English Architecture, The Building of England, that won the Forbes Heritage book of the year prize.
My most recent book is Houses of Power the Places that Shaped the Tudor World. I’m currently writing its sequel Theatres of Revolution.
House, Home and Family
My father was Anglo-Indian and came to England in 1953. He was the last of his family to leave India after Independence and came to London to finish his vetinary training, begun in Madras. My mother was born into a family recently described in my uncle John House’s obituary as ‘intellectual aristocracy’. She went to Oxford and the LSE before becoming a Social Worker. My parents met because they were both committed Christians, though my mother was an Anglican and my father Plymouth Brethren.
I was brought up in what would today be considered a strictly religious household (we all went to church three times on a Sunday). We even lived in a former Strict Baptist Manse. This lovely old house was in the Roman town of Godmanchester (Cambs) where I watched archaeologists excavating in people’s gardens as far back as my memory goes. Aged seven I got permission to do my own dig in our vegetable garden. I was lucky enough to hit a big and deep rubbish pit at the back of a Roman shop. The next summer our dig led to the discovery of a Roman basilica. Our lawn was never flat enough to play cricket on again.
These childhood forays into archaeology, and an early passion for collecting and museums led, eventually to me reading history at London University. I spent my time looking at old buildings and doing amateur dramatics (twice at the Edinburgh Fringe). I got a good degree and on the advice of my uncle, John House, who was a professor at the Courtauld Institute went there to do an MA in architectural history. This was also a success and I went on to do a PhD. My research was into royal palaces and I worked out from archaeological remains and thousands of pages of Henry VIII’s building accounts the plans of his palaces and how he lived in them. This was published in 1993 as my first book.
Meanwhile there had been a terrible fire at Hampton Court and English Heritage wanted to recruit an Assistant Inspector of Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments to work on the team rebuilding the damage. My PhD put me in perfect position and at the age of 26 I joined the team rebuilding the devastated palace. Two years later the government decided to get a new body called Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) to run Hampton Court, the Tower of London and Kensington Palace. I was lucky enough to get the job of Curator at HRP. It was terrifying. I had no management experience, no financial experience only lots of ideas about what we could do with these amazing buildings.
I had eight amazing years there. We reopened the fire damage to great acclaim and then went on to restore the garden of William and Mary (The Privy Garden) – still the largest and most ambitious formal garden ever restored in Britain. We recreated Edward I’s palace at the Tower of London and designed and rebuilt the Jewel House there re-displaying the Crown Jewels. I was locked up in the vault for days on end with armed police as we installed the crowns. There were lots of other projects. Historic Royal Palaces was very successful financially mainly because of the Tower of London) and we had lots of money to play with.
Eventually the Permanent Secretary of the then Department of National Heritage, Sir Hayden Phillips, called me in and said that it was time to move. He told me to work out which museum directors were retiring and apply for their jobs in sequence till I got one!
The Museum of London was actually the perfect job. It was a social history museum with the country’s largest archaeological unit attached to it. On the one hand we did a wonderful innovative exhibition programme – my first show was called London Bodies and was about the health of Londoners as revealed by excavated skeletons – and on the other we did some of the most exciting urban archaeology of the late 20th century. The high point was the discovery of a Roman girl in a fabulous sarcophagus in Spitalfields. We were on the Today Programme three days running and opened the coffin on live TV. We used archaeology to push the museum’s profile and our visitor numbers soared. While I was there we built a new exhibition gallery, and a vast new archaeological store in Hackney to contain what was, by then, the UKs largest archaeological archive.
In the meantime I was busy writing. As well as lots of small things I published a big book on Whitehall Palace and then in 2002 my book on Hampton Court which two reviewers called the best book ever written on a single building. Bill Bryson chose it as his book of the year but said ‘The only downside is that if you fall asleep reading it in bed, you could be crushed’, which was a fair point. I was also doing a lot of television at this time. I had been doing BBC2’s One Foot in the Past and various magazine programmes but then I got a series for Channel 4 called Lost Buildings of Britain and wrote a book for it. More Television was to follow.
I left the Museum of London in 2003 after being asked by the Chairman of English Heritage to put in an application to be the Chief Executive. I was very sad to leave, we were in the middle of rebuilding the museum entrance and I had lots of plans for the future. But English Heritage was just a dream job. This was the chance to oversee the nation’s heritage: something I had been working in, studying and talking about since my early 20s. I was not yet 40 when I took up post and once again I was horrified at the thought of 2,000 staff and £180m budget. But in a typically British way I plunged in and got on with it.
There was a huge amount to do. Getting people to think differently about conservation was at the top of the list. Many people just thought that heritage was a blockage and that we were the people who wanted to say ‘no’ to everything. I pushed the concept that heritage was about the future not the past and that what English Heritage was about was making really nice and successful places to live blending past and present. We codified our principles and got them widely accepted as the standard way of judging how to make changes to historic buildings.
Meanwhile we set out to make our 420 sites and monuments better to visit and more profitable. We did a series of big restoration projects – some gardens like Wrest Park and Kenilworth and some buildings Like Dover Castle and Kenwood House. The hardest nut to crack was Stonehenge where we finally closed the adjacent road in June 2013 (we started trying in 1928). A new museum opened there in December 2013. In 2003 the business side was loss making. Each visitor was subsidised by over £3 a head. By 2012 we had transformed the situation. We had 1m members and every visitor contributed more than 70p.
We boosted the public profile of English Heritage. I dreamt up a series called Restoration with Jane Root the comptroller of BBC2 which was a big success. I also did a number of solo programmes including an eight part history of building on Channel 5. More books followed including histories of other royal palaces and a history of Ancient Monuments in Britain which was published in 2013. I was very active internationally being the president of the European Heritage Heads Forum the international gathering of national heritage chiefs. At home we managed to rescue a series of really important buildings: Ditherington Flax Mill, Apethorpe Hall, the Evans Silver factory, Harmondsworth barn and were involved in almost continuous legal battles on new skyscrapers in London.
English Heritage however was at the bottom of the pile as far as Labour priorities were concerned and we were cut every year financially. We fixed our hopes on the Tories getting in. When they did the financial situation had turned and we were immediately cut by a half. So in 2010 we started working on a bid to get the National Heritage Collection out of government and into an independent charity. This was successful and the government gave us £80m in 2013 to do this.
‘Working on the new governance model for English Heritage was hugely challenging as we had to separate into two a large organisation that had successfully worked as one for thirty years. In doing so we needed to make sure both parts would be properly funded and that none of the public duties we had were lost to sight. we also had to keep both parts running successfully while we did it.
The details the model are explained elsewhere on my website but I decided in 2013 that as we were creating two bodies out of one that we would need new leadership in both. It would be no use me trying to do one or the other job as it would be frustrating for everyone. A clean start was what was needed. Thus I told the Commission that I would go as soon as the two new organisations were set up and new chief executives recruited. My biggest anxiety in the latter part of the process was thus finding two people who I believed could do the job. Commission were obviously determined that this should be the case too. Luckily Duncan Wilson, a long-term friend and colleague with outstanding credentials, got one job and the very capable Kate Mavor got the other.
In 2014 I decided to stop doing big management jobs and was offered a Senior Research Fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research. I signed a contract to write a book about the Tudor and Stuart court and its palaces and I have subsequently joined a couple of boards and taken on a little private advisory work. My Tudor book Houses of Power came out in 2016. In 2017 I set up a consultancy Architrave Historical Services.
I married Anna Keay in 2008. We had, in fact, known each other for years. She is an historian too and had worked at English Heritage though she now runs the Landmark Trust. In 2007 we had bought Clifton House, King’s Lynn which we threw ourselves into restoring. The 800 year-old merchants’ house is now occasionally open to the public: details on my sister website CliftonHouse.org.uk We had incredibly premature boy girl twins in 2008 when I was 46 and who are now healthy and energetic children. Anna has a separate website AnnaKeay.co.uk where you can learn about her fantastic books which are written, like mine, in our library in Norfolk.