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Can historic houses tell more stories than they have done?

4 January 2021

Despite recent complaints that organisations such as the National Trust are ‘erasing history’, the evidence suggests that the real challenge is to present a much fuller and more complicated account of the past.

Olivia Horsfall Turner

Writing in 1709, the playwright-turned-architect Sir John Vanbrugh observed the widespread enthusiasm for touring old buildings. Some sites were valued ‘for their magnificence, or curious workmanship; and others, as they move more lively and pleasing reflections (than history without their aid can do) on the persons who have inhabited them; on the remarkable things which have been transacted in them, or the extraordinary occasions of erecting them’. Modern impulses for visiting such houses are even more varied: aesthetic wonder and self-improvement mingle with voyeurism and escapism. Vanbrugh knew that historic house-visiting and storytelling have much in common. What is currently at stake is what those stories might be about.

With the recent publication of the National Trust’s interim report on connections between its places, colonialism and slavery, and in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, discussion has focused on the urgency to include stories relating to people of colour. One might say that this is a timely emphasis but, considering that the built environment of Britain has been shaped by colonialism since the 16th century, it is in fact long overdue. Leafing through National Trust guidebooks from the 1970s and ’80s (until recently often the most up-to-date version available), it is notable that there was no reflection on, for example, Dyrham Park’s connections to colonialism over generations: William and George Wynter’s ownership of vessels used in slave-trading voyages in the 1560s; William Blathwayt’s colonial career which financed the updated house and park around 1700; and the fact that at the turn of the 19th century, the lady of the house was of mixed heritage, born illegitimately in Jamaica to a plantation owner.

Revealing uncomfortable origins is to appreciate the intricacy of places that have been shaped by complex and sometimes compromised individuals, and to acknowledge the web of exchange and exploitation that connects us all. Moreover, overlooking certain stories has played an active role in marginalising particular groups in the wider world. If we want an equitable society, we must redress this.

The traditional historic house, the stately home, embodies a way of life that hangs by a thread (some might say rightly so) but, despite their association with private wealth and privilege, houses held by the National Trust, English Heritage and other charities, and arguably even those still in private hands, are shared national assets. Visiting these places is a way of exercising that wider cultural ownership – and if we believe that these places are worth preserving at all, we need as diverse a range of people as possible to participate.

Narratives focusing on under-represented groups have been championed through initiatives such as Accentuate’s ‘History of Place’ project on D/deaf and disabled people’s heritage, and the National Trust’s ‘Prejudice and Pride’ project to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act and its partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England. The definition of a ‘historic house’ has also widened considerably, from the National Trust’s acquisition in 2010 of 575 Wandsworth Road, London, the home created by Khadambi Asalache (1935–2006), the Kenyan-born poet, novelist, philosopher of mathematics and British civil servant, to the independent project to save and give public access to 186 Gwydir Street, Cambridge, former home of the artisan decorator David Parr.

It is therefore both possible and positively desirable that historic houses should tell more stories – not only more in number, but more complicated in nature. Searching for these stories should be a collaboration and those of us who have hitherto enjoyed the security of representation must exercise humility to allow that our own narrative may not be the most important at all times or in all places. With a proliferation of stories, of course, comes the challenge of prioritisation and of presentation. The solution lies in holding multiple truths in tension. Only in that way can we respect both the historic and the human.

Olivia Horsfall Turner is Senior Curator of Designs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Chartwell, Kent – home of Winston Churchill. Photo: Prisma Bildagentur/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Oliver Cox

On 9 November, 28 members of the Common Sense Group of Conservative Party peers and MPs wrote to the Daily Telegraph to complain about the recent activities of ‘institutional custodians of history and heritage’ and what they regarded as a concerted effort by a ‘clique of powerful, privileged liberals […] to rewrite our history in their image’. Although it wasn’t named directly – the letter focused on a perceived slight to Winston Churchill’s memory at his home, Chartwell – the recent report by the National Trust about the properties in its care with links to colonialism and slavery, including Chartwell, cannot have been far from the signatories’ minds.

For many of the Trust’s critics, unfortunately, the interpretation of historic houses is a zero-sum game – where cherished narratives are obliterated by political correctness – rather than a process in which new historical knowledge allows professional staff and volunteers at historic houses to tell more stories. However, when the National Trust is viewed as part of the complex ecosystem of organisations and individuals that open historic houses to the public, the idea that such places have the potential to tell a range of stories, over and above that of the lives and loves of the heteronormative dynastic family, is hardly a startling revelation. This is a process that started decades ago, with the opening up and interpretation of servants’ quarters, through to more recent annual programming at the trust focussing on LGBTQ+ (2017) and women’s histories (2018).

In the university sector, research into historic house collections is in rude health. New PhD projects recently started at the University of Oxford in partnership with the National Trust include the study of photographs taken in British colonies, Ferdinand de Rothschild’s self-fashioning at Waddesdon Manor, and the socio-cultural activities of West Indian absentee slaveholders in Britain. This month, PhD researchers at the Universities of Sheffield and York, in collaboration with Chatsworth, launch a new seminar that ‘interrogates the relationship between class, queerness, empire, creativity, and the country house as an institution’. Next month, a new seminar ‘The World in a Historic House: Global Connections and Collections’ will start at the Institute for Historical Research.

Relevant research is, however, often inaccessible to staff and volunteers who cannot justify the subscription fees to scholarly journals. The Paul Mellon Centre’s recently launched Art & the Country House project, to which I am a contributor, is an example of what is possible through open access online publication, and builds upon influential, and freely-downloadable edited volumes such as the East India Company at Home and Slavery and the British Country House. What these online publications are unable to do, however, is ensure that heritage professionals at property level have the necessary time, and encouragement from senior management, to digest, absorb and translate these findings into engaging stories.

Communicating the multiple chronological and decorative layers of historic houses remains a significant challenge. QR codes, embedded videos and other smartphone-enabled technologies offer one way of guiding visitors through a choice of stories. However, it would be foolish to overlook the accumulated depths of knowledge about visitors’ wants, needs and interests gleaned by volunteers and front of house staff through their daily interactions with both visitors and the physical spaces themselves.

As part of the Jewish Country Houses: Objects, Networks, People research project at Oxford, training is available for volunteers and heritage professionals, often with little knowledge of Jewish history, to help them tell new stories about the ‘Jewish’ dimensions of individual historic houses, while remaining sensitive to contemporary concerns about antisemitism, to the continuing relevance of Holocaust memory, and to the fact that many Jewish country house owners chose to downplay, or even reject, being Jewish – perhaps particularly in their country lives.

Historic houses are critical and often untapped sites of public history. As they recover and rebuild after the economic and cultural shocks of 2020, their potential to enrich popular understanding of Britain’s history in local, regional and global contexts, will rely upon effective collaboration and, most importantly, on supporting, training and encouraging volunteers (young and old) to share a wider range of stories than they have in the past.

Oliver Cox is Heritage Engagement Fellow at the University of Oxford and Co-Lead of the Oxford University Heritage Network.

From the January 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.