Have you ever looked at a historic building and wondered, “how is it still here?” Old buildings can act like time capsules that transport us into the past. But in order to stand the test of time, these structures often need a lot of care. Looking after these beautiful, old buildings is an important job and usually involves a team of experts.
Today, we’re exploring the exciting work that goes into preserving historical buildings with our guests Kelly Whitton and Aimee-Anna Akinola. They both work at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Blenheim Palace, in Oxfordshire, England. Looking after this famous site is no small feat. Kelly and Aimee have kindly answered all our questions about their work at the Palace.
Aimee and Kelly on the grounds of Blenheim Palace. Image courtesy of Blenheim Palace.
Can you give our readers a quick overview of your job? What kind of work do you do day-to-day?
We manage all the restoration projects across the whole of the Blenheim Palace UNESCO World Heritage Site which includes the Lake Dredge, all the stone repairs and other big projects where you might see lots of scaffolding!
We decide what project is happening and when, then we bring a design team together to work out the design and how much it will cost—this normally includes a conservation architect and structural engineer, then we finally appoint a contractor to help us build it. It is very expensive to repair a whole Palace, so we have a big budget, but that means we have lots of scrutiny too.
Every day is different—some days we wear hard hats and hi-vis and are on top of the roof, and other days we are back in the office planning projects.
Image courtesy of Blenheim Palace.
What made you want to work in architecture?
We love buildings and their landscapes, history, people and how architecture combines all these things together to make places better.
We also like to solve problems, so there is nothing better than seeing the difference a project makes to our visitors and the local community. This could be anything from falling stone all the way to reducing the amount of carbon being emitted across the Palace.
Do you need special training for your job?
Kelly is an architect which meant she spent over 7 years in training! She then worked all over the world designing hospitals and schools, which might not sound relevant, but it means she knows how to get projects delivered on time and on budget!
Aimee completed the first part of her architecture training but decided to move into a project management apprenticeship role so she can earn and learn! Aimee will soon be a Construction Project Manager.
It’s this combination of experience that makes our team so valuable. We also have Chris, who has over 20 years’ experience in the Palace and knows it inside out.
The most important thing we bring is a love of history and culture.
Aimee and Kelly with the Head of innovation, David Green. Image courtesy of Blenheim Palace.
What would you say is the coolest part of your job?
Being behind the scenes and inside secret areas that are not open to the public— like being on the roof or up on the scaffolding when projects are underway. It is also pretty cool being a World Heritage Site, not only are we important across the UK but we are also really important globally.
Have you ever found something unusual while restoring parts of Blenheim Palace?
Deep within the building, under layers of lead, we sometimes find old secret writings by the original servants and construction workers back into the 1700’s. Our current craftsman may add their initials to these to continue this secret history.
Construction underway on the Palace's Orangery. Image courtesy of Blenheim Palace.
Blenheim Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Are there any unique challenges that come with such a historic building?
Because it is a really important building, a lot of people need to check that we are looking after it correctly. Sometimes this is useful and other times it can be very challenging. The most important thing is that we acknowledge that we are only looking after this great place for future generations to enjoy and care for.
What kind of projects have you worked on at Blenheim Palace? Was there one that you found really rewarding or interesting?
We have just finished the Lake Dredge and we also built the Adventure Play (not really a heritage project but it was fun!). We have spent over £9 million on repair and restoration works over the last three years so there are lots of projects to choose from.
We both think that the Orangery project, which has just finished, is our favorite to date. It combines restoration, repair, and climatic adaptation into a very unique project that’s never been done before but will lead the way.
A view of the community art project that was part of the Oxfordshire Youth and Blenheim collaboration featuring art by young people across the £2.5 million Orangery, Kitchen, and Flagstaff roof works. Image courtesy of Blenheim Palace.
Are there any common misconceptions people have about historic homes and restoration work?
People may think that historic homes are boring and old, but Blenheim Palace is so much more.
Whilst the site dates back over 2000 years ago to Roman times and we have trees over 1000 years old, it is also all about engineering, biodiversity, heritage, culture and material science. So it’s much more than just an old building with old stuff in it! We learn something new every day and it is so inspiring.
Do you have advice to give kids who might be interested in working in architecture and built heritage one day?
Architecture is all about being creative and working with people and the environment so explore your local area, your country, and the world if you can. Learn something new from every person that you speak to, find out what you have in common, and understand what might divide you. Keep an open mind, look for problems that exist at home, school, or across the world—and then try and work out how you might solve them.
The Built Heritage Team with the Head of Innovation, David Green. Image courtesy of Blenheim Palace.
Curious to learn more about the Palace? Don’t forget to check out our Interview with a Blenheim Palace Archivist. And if you’re looking for more interviews to explore, you can browse our kids magazine. Young historians can learn about different careers, from being an astronaut to a postal worker!