Last edited 18 Dec 2022

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

How architecture can suppress cultural identity

Historic buildings, monuments, sites and museums with darker histories can tell us how architecture, places and objects can play a role in suppressing cultural identity.

Powys castle.jpg
Powys Castle houses the Clive Collection of over 1,000 Indian artefacts.

In November 2020 a group of 59 Conservative MPs and seven peers wrote a letter to The Telegraph claiming to represent ‘the silent majority of voters tired of being patronised by elitist bourgeois liberals’. A part of their mission, they said, was to ‘ensure that institutional custodians of history and heritage, tasked with safeguarding and celebrating British values, are not coloured by cultural Marxist dogma’. In the ensuing debate the National Trust was criticised for documenting links with slavery and colonialism in 90 of its properties, and the National Maritime Museum was challenged for presenting ‘multiple perspectives on history’ in response to Black Lives Matter protests.

When Oliver Dowden, then secretary of state for culture media and sport, issued a letter regarding contested heritage and its interpretation to national museums and bodies such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Museums Association replied urging the UK government to respect the arm’s-length principles enjoyed by all museums, allowing them to make decisions on care, presentation and interpretation of their cultural heritage in discussion with their communities.

These events, and the growing ‘war against woke’ which had spread from the USA as a mix of theories on race, post-colonialism and gender identity, assumed a particular focus on history and heritage in the UK. They have subsequently been pursued with particular vigour in parts of the press and social media.

What then might multiple perspectives on heritage provide, and how can they help to foster social cohesion? The Queen’s platinum jubilee this year celebrated a reign of extraordinary continuity and goodwill. But set against this beacon of civility is the legacy of the British Empire, the disappearance of which the Queen herself witnessed. While the British Commonwealth has survived under her guardianship as a symbol of the nations’ heritage – based on friendship, loyalty and the desire for freedom and peace – universities throughout the UK have recently sought to decolonise their curriculums; factions have contested the removal of Cecil Rhodes’s statue from its place on the listed Oriel College Oxford; and historic figures associated with slavery have been identified. The British Empire, it is now widely argued, was not so much a liberalising enterprise intended to modernise and bring rule of law to the non-western world, as an act of domination brought about by coercion, often achieved by violence and cruelty.

The authors of the National Trust report on slavery and colonialism that caused the group of MPs and peers to complain argued that it is incumbent on historians and guardians of heritage never to become complacent, but to push at boundaries and be evermore inclusive. In justification, they referred to the founding aspiration of Octavia Hill that the organisation should speak to and for everyone; claiming that only by honest and open acknowledgement of the reality and legacy of slavery and colonialism that have been fundamental to several historic houses, their collections and estates would justice be done for what was sometimes an uncomfortable episode in global history.

Around a third of the trust’s properties have direct connections to colonial events and 29 have links to successful compensation claims for slave ownership. The research carried out also provides evidence regarding the presence of African, Asian and Chinese people working on some of the estates; and that several of the properties can be connected with campaigns opposing colonial oppression. The facts uncovered present a different picture to the conventional histories that have disregarded associations with the slave trade and the role played by people of colour in the national interest.

These findings broaden our understanding of the trust’s properties and their history. At Powys Castle, close to the English/Welsh border, is the Clive Collection of over 1,000 Indian artefacts, one of the most important outside India. Amassed by Robert Clive (1725–1774), it powerfully illustrates the connection between colonial activities and the acquisition of high-status art objects. These include textiles, gems and decorative arts that were plundered after violent skirmishes and widespread looting by the East India Company’s army, which forcibly invaded and conquered parts of the Indian subcontinent under Clive’s command. Research into the acquisition of the collection is currently under way so that the story can be fully explained to visitors.

Penrhyn Castle in Snowdonia, also owned by the National Trust, was chosen by Neil McGregor for his radio series The Museums That Make Us because of the focus the curators are currently placing on how the 1830s Norman fantasy castle and the Pennant family’s impressive art collection were acquired. The castle was built on the proceeds of the nearby Penrhyn slate quarry, the investment for which came from the family’s sugar plantation in Jamaica, and the compensation received when slavery was abolished. Moreover, in 1900–03 one of the great national episodes in the struggle of labour against capital took place at Penhryn, when the quarrymen went on strike, capitulating only after three years when they faced starvation. Visitors to Penrhyn Castle are now able to understand how the riches they see around them could not have been assembled without the exploitation and oppression by the Pennant family of the labour forces both in Wales and the Caribbean.

Another National Trust initiative, with funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England, has provided the opportunity for 100 children to lead national conversations on the links between heritage and colonisation. Known as the Colonial Countryside Project, this involves 11 trust properties, including Kedleston Hall, home of Lord Curzon, the last Viceroy of India; Speke Hall, Liverpool, the 18th-century owners of which made fortunes from the slave trade; and Charlecote Park, which had black servants. Led by Corinne Fowler of the University of Leicester, the children collaborated with historians and writers to produce short stories and videos on each of the houses and to curate exhibitions. At Charlecote they produced an alternative guidebook incorporating cartoons.

Bringing the story up to date, the National Trust is currently staging an exhibition at the Birmingham Back to Backs about the lives of the Windrush generation in the 1970s. It is an exact recreation of two rooms of the home of Erick and Vera Brown and their family, who travelled by boat from the Caribbean to seek a new life in Britain. The exhibition has been timed to coincide with the coming of the Commonwealth Games in July.

English Heritage too has researched and explained the links between the transatlantic slave trade and properties in its care – this commenced during the 2007 bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade – and several privately owned historic houses, including Harewood Hall in Yorkshire have addressed the issue in a sensitive and creative manner. Historic England has reviewed the formal descriptions of its listed buildings to take account of such associations, as well as the LGBTQ+ histories. For example, the former Martins Bank in Liverpool, completed in 1932, has a prominent relief sculpture depicting African children bearing bags of money, about which the amended list description tactfully comments:

‘Some see them as dignifying, or accepting unquestioningly, the role of slavery in Liverpool’s economy; whilst some see them as a more general celebration of the international aspect of Liverpool’s trade and prosperity. Either way, the fact that the subject was chosen in 1927–32 is an indication of the extent to which Liverpool’s former involvement with the slave trade has been embedded in its economic culture’.

First to address the cultural heritage issues around colonialism, slavery and racism was the museum sector, essentially because of the imperialist foundations on which collection-based institutions in Britain were funded. Museums established in the Victorian period presented the cultural achievements of people of African descent as inferior to the histories and creative outputs of white Europeans, so it is not surprising that such perceptions lingered on.

The Museums Association’s Statement on Decolonisation sees decolonisation as a long-term process seeking to recognise the integral role of empire in British museums from their creation to the present day. It states that over past decades museums have begun to recognise the trauma and suffering caused by the display of objects that were obtained during or made because of the British Empire. They are now working with communities and those in the diaspora relevant to their collections to explore different ways in which they can be displayed; and where appropriate consider options for restitution.

In summary, what all these historic buildings, monuments, heritage sites and museums with darker histories can tell us is that architecture, places and objects can play a significant role in suppressing cultural identity. The debates now taking place on how they should be assessed and presented emphasise the complexity of the issue. For heritage professionals, working along with others in the planning and development sector, it is important to be aware not only of their cultural significance, but also to understand the impact they may have on a wider and more diverse society. Without the understanding of communities that have been affected by the impact of colonialism, prejudice or discrimination, the barriers to a cohesive historic environment will remain.

This article originally appeared as ‘Multiple perspectives on heritage’ in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 173, published in September 2022. It was written by Peter de Figueiredo, reviews editor of Context.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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