Apollo Magazine (UK)

Can historic houses tell more stories than they have done?

Despite recent complaints that organisati­ons such as the National Trust are ‘rewriting’ history, the real challenge is how historic properties can present a fuller and more complex account of the past

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

Writing in 1709, the playwright­turned-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 selfimprov­ement mingle with voyeurism and escapism. Vanbrugh knew that historic housevisit­ing 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 (Fig. 1); 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.

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