Politically correct heritage – storming in a (bone china) teacup.

An understated comment and warning by the Director General of Historic Houses in the members’ magazine before Christmas has been picked up by the Spectator and the Telegraph and turned into an argument that the National Trust is continuing to pursue a politically correct agenda in the presentation of its properties open to the public.

The Prejudice and Pride activity programme, report and research by the National Trust and Leicester University, which followed the 2017 celebration marking 50 years since the Sexual Offences Act (1967), which partially decriminalised homosexuality in England, provided an opportunity to understand heritage better, reflecting on the legacy of those LGBTQ individuals whose stories have not been fully told.

The Historic Houses Director-General, Ben Cowell, picked up on a specific point in the programme’s accompanying report which suggested the the focus on family history at National Trust houses results in ‘a narrative that privileges heterosexual lives’, leading to ‘a heteronormative emphasis’ on the line of succession (who married whom, which children they had, and all that).  Cowell questions whether in future succession might only reluctantly be acknowledged in interpretation, and states a hope that we shouldn’t end up with complex historical circumstances at a house being reduced to ‘a single (progressive) story‘.

Rod Liddle, writing in the Spectator on January 12th, has enlarged on the ‘mild rebuke‘ of the National Trust by Ben Cowell, into an opinion piece which laments that Historic Houses is on the wrong side of history, and that sadly, everything is now ‘reducible to a single (progressive) story which takes no account of historical realities.’  Liddle ends by opining, ‘the past is not, as Historic Houses quietly suggested it was, a foreign country where people do things differently. The past either did not exist or should not have existed, and those aspects which conflict with our modern sensibilities must be airbrushed out of the picture’.  

Amusingly, The Telegraph, has taken the opinion piece a step further (January 25th), suggesting that a row over revisionism has started, ‘with one prominent conservator [Cowell, in his original Historic Houses Magazine column] suggesting the Trust would “jar with the realities of history” if it tried to play down the role of families who have looked after stately homes for centuries, without whom they would not exist.‘  The story goes on to regurgitate previous accusations of the Trust acting in a politically correct way, reminding readers of the row started at Felbrigg in 2017, when the Trust “outed” Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, the late owner of the hall, leading to volunteers at the site refusing to wear rainbow lanyards; and the accusation by the Church of England that the Trust was “airbrushing faith” by not using the word ‘Easter’ in its annual chocolate egg hunt sponsored by Cadburys.

The Telegraph piece didn’t refer to the Mail’s NT-PC story from the back end of last year, when a visitor spotted a timeline at Avebury Manor using BCE / CE (before common era / common era) instead of AD / BC labelled dates.  It is, however, a theme which the Telegraph does tend to revisit, having reported on the Trust chairman’s end of year (2017) internal memo to staff, and then again with an opinion piece geared around Cragside covering up busts and paintings of men, under the wonderfully provocative banner, “Nobody joins the National Trust to be subjected to politically correct agitprop“.

The National Trust has indeed changed its approach to presenting its properties, beginning to foreground alternative histories relevant to its properties and stories around gender, slavery, equality, and sexual orientation which wouldn’t necessarily have featured previously, as it tries to make the experience of its sites more inclusive, and aims to attract a more diverse audience.  Has it become politically correct though?  Probably not. The jury is likely to continue to play this out in the press, from varying standpoints and with more or less accompanied eye-rolling at an organisation perceived to be at the centre of the heritage ‘establishment’, and therefore a good target for critique by journalists.

This is all perhaps more instructive in media studies terms rather than anything else, with ideas of left or right-leaning politics, establishment and subversion, all thrown together with more than a sprinkling of journalistic license to create a storm in a bone china teacup. A great case study for my heritage management students has written itself.

From transit to tapas and trinkets

Coal Drops Yard has now opened behind King’s Cross Station, London. Whilst snagging jobs are still being completed, and with retail units still to fill, the site remains a work in progress in a rebirth that has seen the area’s legacy of historic buildings change from hosting goods yards and activities associated with the railways and canals, to retail and catering outlets at the ‘craft’ and ‘high end’ of the commercial spectrum. New architectural interventions have been added, such as the striking new roof over the west side of the coal yard, and in fully redundant plots brownfield redevelopment is seeing new office and retail blocks with strong design signatures distinctly of their time. Residential blocks combine old and new forms, including the striking Gas Holder blocks of flats.

Following the successful heritage-led redevelopments previously of the main King’s Cross and St. Pancras Stations, the whole area is now a fascinating amalgam of old and new, and epitomises our shifting relationship with places of transit which now tempt us to dwell longer rather than pass through.

Leaving traces in the landscape

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Duntulm, Skye © David Gill

Concerns are being raised about visitors creating piles of cairns that detract from the landscape (Michael Cox, ‘Beaches ‘spoiled’: Should rock stacking be banned?‘, BBC News 11 August 2018). John Hourston of the Blue Planet Society is quoted: ‘The first rule of the environment is leave no trace … If we educated people to understand that philosophy I think then people would have second thoughts about making a personal statement with a rock stack.’

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Neist Point, Skye © David Gill

The issue is not just one for Scotland. This summer we observed the phenomenon on Lindisfarne, Northumberland.

Tourists need to leave the landscape as they find it.

A question of ownership of national heritage assets

There has been some recent press coverage in The Scotsman about plans by the Royal Collection Trust to create holiday flats in Abbey Strand – buildings that form part of the complex of the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. This has been picked up subsequently in a debate on the ownership of the heritage asset and who picks up the bill for managing it.

Asset ownership in the public sector has come into focus of late, partly because of austerity forcing public bodies to rationalise their building stock and use to cut costs, and also because of the move to empower communities (particularly in Scotland) to take ownership of, or responsibility for buildings that were previously run by national or local Government agencies.

In the heritage sector, this has prompted Historic Environment Scotland to consult the public on its policy and guidance for Asset Transfer – which in theory could open elements of the national historic properties portfolio up for alternative ownership or management models.  At one point in the consultation process the list of assets were described, somewhat erroneously as a ‘shopping list of castles’.  In fact, many of the properties that could be transferred are ancillary buildings such as car parks and ticket huts, as the main historic property is either held only in Guardianship (for a private owner) or is a Crown holding.

Anything to do with land ownership is of course complicated and can get tied up with wider society arguments on equity and access – and as the debate on the Palace of Holyroodhouse demonstrates – it is a real rabbit hole to explore ownership and organisational management responsibility of heritage assets (buildings and land) in particular where the ‘public organisational realm’ is concerned. Any investigation soon throws up all kinds of interesting historical quirks and complicated relationships between ownership and management and sometimes a collective scratching of heads.

Ancient title of ownership associated with the Monarchy and Government, regulated by law such as the Crown Lands Act (and subsequent associated legislation) nonetheless makes for fascinating investigation – in some respects these lands and properties have formed part of the core of the national collections of historic properties, which are now managed by Historic Environment Scotland, English Heritage and Cadw.  But, also in the mix of heritage asset owners and managers are other Governmental or public bodies such as Historic Royal Palaces, the Royal Parks, the Crown Estate (and new Crown Estate Scotland body), the Ministry of Defence, the Courts Service and on a wider landscape scale bodies such as the Forestry Commission.

Being the UK, there are some delightful quirks to be discovered in organisations such as the Crown Estate Paving Commission, which manages and maintains areas of Crown Land around the Regent’s Park and Carlton House Terrace in London, and the Duchy of Lancaster which holds land and property in trust for the Sovereign.  Management of the elements of what might be considered the national heritage estate is therefore as varied as the properties themselves.

Fixed Frontiers

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Walltown Crags, Hadrian’s Wall © David Gill

As you stand on the northern edge of the Roman Empire it is hard not to speculate on why Hadrian decided to replace the string of forts along the military road (the Stanegate) to a fixed military frontier. Equally important is the economic cost: of the construction, but then of the garrison and upkeep of the defences. And was it effective? Within a generation the line was abandoned and the frontier moved north to the Antonine Wall.

Walking the walk

The best way to explore heritage close up is, of course, on foot.  Heritage explorers typically spend more time looking up at the buildings, sites and features around them than looking down at the ground, but a new site recently launched in the US, and featured on the architectural design newsletter Curbed, is encouraging us to consider the history which our feet are padding across.

 

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“Plan of the City of Toronto,” 1909, using color and hatching to show different types of pavement.  (Toronto Reference Library)

Historic Pavement, developed by Robin B. Williams, Ph.D., Chairman, Architectural History department, Savannah College of Art and Design is setting out to document the remarkable diversity of historic street and sidewalk pavement design in America. It’s quirky and great – and in the About section, I am particularly thrilled that a fellow heritage fanatic was inspired by oddities when young. (I should admit that I spent hours, aged 6 or 7, creating a primary school project on the varied design of lamp-posts in my home town).

Here in the UK, Historic England (then English Heritage) ran a campaign over a decade ago, entitled Streets for All, which looked on a regional level at the management of streets holistically to make the most of the historic features and design which ‘modern’ highway management often made a mess of.  Pavement design and materials were considered in this work, along with wider street furniture (benches, signs, barriers) – and it is interesting or depressing (depending on your point of view) to see which bits of advice and guidance have been followed or ignored in the period since.

 

street-furnitureThe formalities of street design and management is all well and good (see the English Government’s current Department for Transport guidance), but aesthetics of the places we spend time wandering along are important – this is reflected in the more recent guidance produced to support Listing criteria, on Street Furniture.

 

I am reminded again, therefore, to spend time looking up and down.

 

 

 

 

Big Butterfly Count and Heritage Sites

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Small tortoiseshell at Castle Acre © David Gill

The UK Big Butterfly Count started on 15 July and runs until 7 August. On Thursday evening the pits at Grime’s Graves were alive with Meadow Browns.

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Meadow Brown at Grime’s Graves © David Gill

On Saturday there was a particularly fine Small Tortoiseshell in the reconstructed herb garden at Castle Acre.

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Medicinal herb garden at Castle Acre © David Gill

In previous years I spotted a Small White on the lavender in the gardens of Bolsover Castle.

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Small White at Bolsover Castle © David Gill

Why not take a pen and paper (form available) or download the app, and record how many butterflies you spot when you next visit a heritage site? Then upload it to the Big Butterfly Count.