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.

Amusement in Aberdeenshire as newly discovered stone circle turns out to be… well, new.

There has been much amusement in the media over the past few days around the official recording of a stone circle before Christmas by archaeologists from the local council and the national heritage organisation, Historic Environment Scotland, which has turned out to be only around 25 years old.

Described earlier as a smaller variation of sites typical of the region, it was noted that is was in very good condition, and that it was surprising that the site had not been formally recorded before now. The former owner of the land, however, has recently got in touch with the officials explaining that he built the replica in the mid-1990s.

Cue much collective guffawing and some professional embarrassment – neatly summed up on the BBC’s Newsround website as, “Awks!”  The local archaeologist took to twitter noting ruefully, “If you are having an awkward day at work at least you’re not that guy who identified a new prehistoric stone circle to the press that now turns out to be about 20 years old.

A nice piece in the Scotsman this week puts this all into a wider perspective, noting that many archaeological sites of this kind remain mysterious; flags that the honesty and candour of professionals involved will do them good rather than harm; and that there is a history of making ‘new’ monuments.  The example of the Sighthill Megalith is given – and I would encourage you to read Kenny Brophy’s blog on this site, and his other investigations into the past around us in the everyday urban environment.

I agree with the Scotsman article and forsee that the site will indeed become of greater interest to visitors, and should rightly do so.  Given the ’30 year rule’ which applies to listing sites in the built environment, the site is already almost of an age where it could officially be ‘heritage’, and in due course could indeed merit protection – and why not?  It may be a site of its time, and hopefully investigation won’t stop entirely – it would be great to professionally record the motivation of the builder of this new/old site – and, as archaeologists often say, to gain an insight into the society which created it – an advantage we don’t have for sites which really are 4000 years old.

Academic journals: International Journal of Cultural Policy

Journal summary: The International Journal of Cultural Policy is a peer reviewed journal that provides an outlet for an interdisciplinary and international exploration of the meaning, function and impact of cultural policies. Cultural policy is understood as the promotion or prohibition of cultural practices and values by governments, corporations, other institutions and individuals.

Such policies may be explicit, in that their objectives are openly described as cultural, or implicit, in that their cultural objectives are concealed or described in other terms. The historical range is not limited to any given period, but the Journal is primarily concerned with material that is relevant to the contemporary world and which contributes to a fruitful international exchange of ideas.

The Journal acknowledges the multiplicity of meanings around the idea of culture and the inter-relationship of these meanings. However, whilst it takes a broad view of culture, encompassing a wide range of signifying practices that include the products of the media, the arts and various forms of government or religious display, the Journal will attempt to maintain a focus on policies relating to culture as symbolic communication rather than to culture in the anthropological sense as ‘a whole way of life’.

Publisher: Routledge

Website: https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/gcul20/current

Access: Subscription; some open access

Journal type: Academic peer-reviewed

Academic journals: AMPS (Architecture, Media, Politics, Society)

Journal summary: AMPS (Architecture, Media, Politics, Society) is an international nonprofit research organisation. AMPS sees the definition, debates and concerns of the built environment as intrinsic to those at the heart of other social, cultural and political discourses. The territory it seeks to explore is an overlaid terrain in which the physical, material and the environmental are critically examined through the prism of the cultural, the mediatic, the social and the political.
Its focus is cross disciplinary and draws on the media, politics and the social sciences. It invites participation from all sectors: architects, planners, policy makers, artists, academics, the public and community activists. It functions as an open access platform for publication, a forum for debate through conferences and workshop, a conduit for book publications and also operates as an academic resource repository. Run by information professionals, the repository offers up-to-date materials and listings for research.
Its social aims can be defined as: promoting an understanding of the role of architecture and the built environment on communities, public health and society more broadly; engaging all its stakeholders in events and debates aimed at better understanding and communicating the needs of each party; and providing openly accessible materials such as written articles, research guides, current event listings, and a database of organisations that support these aims.

Publisher: UCL Press

Website: http://architecturemps.com/

Access: Open-access

Journal type: Academic peer-reviewed

Blue Plaque blues

Telegraph's Blue Plaque mock-up

The Telegraph mocked up a memorial to the memorial scheme: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/architecture/9784149/Blue-Plaque-1867-2013.html

There has been a large amount of media and press coverage on the potential end to the Blue Plaque scheme in London, as English Heritage budget cuts begin to hit hard. I noticed it on the BBC news website on Sunday evening, and it was then followed up with claims of the National Trust being a saviour, then a counter-claim suggesting that a misinterpretation of a NT staff member comment had jumped the gun rather. This was then reversed as the NT’s Chair weighed in to suggest that the Trust would look at what it can do to help.  Further analysis has followed in the Telegraph, Mail, Times as well as much social media commentary.  The Telegraph even produced a mock-up Blue Plaque for the Blue Plaque (highlighted here).  It has been an interesting story to watch unfold, and by next week we should see a panoply of knee-jerk re-action (like my own tweet on Sunday), through to basic reporting, analysis and opinion – which will make a great case study for the role of one small aspect of heritage in modern society.  Debate around the comparability of historic figures, who and who is not included, commemoration and notions of intangible heritage locations, the politics and practicalities of choice and management of the scheme all play out in the story.  Craig Brown has a particular wry take on the issue, and a letter to the editor has brought in the matter of the English Heritage Chief Executive’s salary, even. Even before the story has played out, it is fair to say that this highlights again that heritage management is perhaps too ‘threat’ oriented (in this case regarding its own management), and seemingly ‘small’ events in the management of our heritage (the scheme threatened is the London-based one, only erects a small number of plaques each year, and arguably isn’t actually conserving or protecting anything) can have wider ramifications and impact in the public eye.