A “woke virus infects the National Trust” according to “The Conservative Woman” (TCW). The so-called “virus” is the Trust’s official nod to the recent Black Lives Matter movement protests, which have prompted a renewed commitment to inclusion and diversity. This is seen by TCW as “political correctness gone mad.”
The new diversity and inclusion policy’s crime would be to remind supporters that the National Trust is “for everyone” and to acknowledge the “Home Truths” report by the ACEVO and Voice4Change on systematic racism in the charity sector. Pertinently, Britain’s largest heritage organisation’s new policy says: “We have a lot to do to improve our internal culture and address the stories we tell at our places.” A source of contention for this long-standing National Trust volunteer and writer for TCW is that the updated policy “encourages staff and volunteers to take time to educate themselves” about discrimination and racism. Hilary McGrady, the National Trust’s director general has admitted that the 125 year-old heritage organisation’s workforce is not diverse enough. The Trust has 65,000 volunteers and less than 3% of its 14,000 employees are ethnic minorities as National Trust properties are mostly in rural areas.
In this context, the appointment of Dr Corinne Fowler, who leads the “Colonial Countryside Project”, could also be “alienating” to “core supporters” according to TCW. Colonial Countryside is a multifaceted child-led writing and history project exploring African Caribbean and Indian connections of the countryside. A report commissioned by the National Trust last year from a team led by Dr Fowler is also due in September.
According to TCW, people should eternally and only be interested in Jane Austeenesque country houses, green land and cream teas. Audience research has however revealed that not everybody is interested in rural utopia. John Orna-Ornstein, director of culture and engagement at the National Trust, has declared to the Guardian that ”members would welcome the inclusion of a broad range of stories”, as societal expectations have moved. This is echoed in the Financial Times which says that younger visitors are unlikely to turn a blind eye to the stories old guidebooks tell them. On the contrary, complaints and petitions urging the Trust to adequately recognise its properties’ ties with slavery and colonialism are likely to increase as in Trengwainton, a National Trust property in Cornwall.
Contrary to what TCW thinks, in reality, it is Dr Tarnya Cooper, the Trust’s curatorial and collections director, who recently informed the press about the first phase of a ten-year internal inquiry into links between the National Trust properties and slavery, which found that at least a third of the charity’s 300 houses and gardens are linked to exploitation or contain objects taken from overseas. It is consequently ill-informed by TCW to suggest that the Trust’s experts are “historically illiterate” and that they make hasty decisions to support the Black Lives Matter movement or Dr Fowler’s research interests. Far from it, the Trust has been rather slow and reluctant to acknowledge its contested collections and monuments. It may come as a surprise to the general public that the National Trust has been exploring its direct and indirect links to slavery and colonialism since at least the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007. As House and Garden emphasises, “Between 1730 and 1900, more than 1,000 stately homes in Britain were brought using money made from the now illegal practice.”
However, after at least a decade of new research and publications on slavery and colonialism in Britain, the National Trust’s website is rather brief on the history of its properties. How can the trust be so slow to acknowledge the impact of landmark scholarship as the “Legacies of British Slave Ownership” by University College London, or various studies on “Slavery Connections to English Heritage Sites” or books like “Slavery and the British Country House”?
Relatedly, it is unclear whether National Trust properties related to Robert Clive and his family such as Powis Castle in Wales or the Claremont estate in Surrey are or were subject to complaints or petitions in the past. Greenworld reports that in Shropshire, 20,000 people recently wanted to pull down a statue of the so-called “Clive of India” or the man who brought India to the British Empire. A separate petition in London has gathered more than 88,000 signatures for the removal of Clive’s statue from Whitehall. As historian William Dalrymple explains “In 1600, when the East India Company was founded, Britain was generating 1.8% of the world’s GDP, while India was producing 22.5%. By the peak of the Raj, those figures had more or less been reversed: India was reduced from the world’s leading manufacturing nation to a symbol of famine and deprivation.”
It is also bizarre that the Clive Museum’s web page is happy to say that it has “amassed” more than 1000 items from India and East Asia, dating about 1600 to the 1830s, which includes ivories, textiles, statues of Hindu gods, ornamental silver and gold etc. and then say that their reinterpretation work “will take time as we want to ensure that changes we make are sustained and underpinned by high quality research.”
Similarly, it is rather peculiar that TCW thinks that the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) wants the history of this country “cancelled”. On the contrary, BLM supporters want Britain’s history revealed and avoid the traditional narrative of British history as “Our Island Story” championed by Mr Michael Gove. That narrative omits that British history happened, to a large extent, overseas. As Dr Fowler has told the Byeline Times, “One of the things Britons generally don’t realise is how far Empire has brought us to where we are today, how far our institutions – our galleries, schools that were built with philanthropists’ money, our laws, everything – it’s all been influenced by Empire, but not in a way that is benevolent but is fundamentally, as all empires are, equally about an exercise of profit and extraction.”
Interestingly, the National Trust for Scotland, which is distinct from the National Trust for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, has also disclosed that nearly a fifth of its buildings and monuments have connections to transatlantic slavery and colonialism. National Trust Scotland (NTS) has also approved a new public engagement programme called “Facing our Past”. Dr Jennifer Melville, head of curatorial and conservation services at the National Trust Scotland also said “NTS cares for Scotland’s culture and heritage for all peoples, across the world and for all Scots, whether they are members or not. It is our mission to reach all sections of society and address topics such as gender, class, race, LGBTI+, slavery, Empire and colonialism.”
The National Trust’s new strategic vision “Playing Our Part” seems rather subdued to me. It is understandable that in coronavirus times there is an emphasis on the great outdoors. I however wished that Europe’s largest heritage and conservation charity adopted a bolder stance on its properties’ imperial links. Care should also be taken not to create separate clusters between those who like the “outdoors” and those who like the history of NT properties. Admittedly, perhaps partnerships with initiatives as Black2Nature which aim to increase deprived Black Asian and minority ethnic communities access to nature should be considered.
The National Trust should be ready to have mature and overdue conversations about the relationship between Britain’s past and present. In an era where calls for Black history or more diverse histories to be taught at school are ignored, the uncovering of National Trust’ stories, places and collections is an opportunity to bring Britain’s history and heritage to life to younger visitors. Far from silencing “rational debates” or promoting “identity politics” as TCW believes, innovative educational and research projects can avoid, as David Olusoga would say, “a whitewashed, sanitised version of Britain’s past”, where the brutality of slavery and colonialism becomes an absent presence.
The National Trust risks lending support to TCW’s unchanging beliefs that diverse views on National Trust properties would upset supporters as they all could not be open to a “warts and all” perspective of Britain’s heritage, land and buildings. In other words, the National Trust should not believe that diverse histories would only be interesting to Black Asian and minority ethnic people and not to white people or only to urban demographics and not to people who live in the countryside. New interpretations and curation of National Trust places (e.g. historic houses, castles, ancient monuments, garden and parks) must shine a light on the politics of culture and formation of British identities. Similarly, the idea that modern families (that are not necessarily monoracial and typical) can’t have a fun day out because they do not want to have a myopic view of the country’s global cultural heritage is regressive.
Far from losing visitors, strong leadership and a new National Trust vision based on truth can attract new global audiences, research, television programmes and digital public engagement that can recoup job cuts and loss in revenue due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As a National Trust country house and garden petitioner said it is important to inform visitors about “the role black lives played…We cannot go back, but we can move forward and remember those who suffered grave injustice.”
Image Credits: Derwent Edge via Wikipedia; Dryham Park via Wikipedia; Dunham Massey Hall via Wikipedia; Slavery and the English Country House via Historic England; Green Dorset via Pixabay; George Clive via Wikipedia.
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