Apollo Magazine (UK)

Oliver Cox

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

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 smartphone­enabled 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.

 ??  ?? 1. Dyrham Park in Gloucester­shire, rebuilt between 1692 and 1704 by the colonial administra­tor William Blathwayt (1649–1717)
1. Dyrham Park in Gloucester­shire, rebuilt between 1692 and 1704 by the colonial administra­tor William Blathwayt (1649–1717)

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