Apollo Magazine (UK)
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.