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.

Top 10 Heritage Sites for Suffolk

sutton_hoo_3614_med

Sutton Hoo © David Gill

I have been reviewing the summer and thinking about the key heritage sites in Suffolk. I have put the ten locations in a broadly chronological order.

Sutton Hoo. The Anglo-Saxon ship-burial site is one of the most important archaeological sites in the UK. The spectacular finds are displayed in the British Museum.

IMG_1248

The gatehouse to the Abbey, Bury St Edmunds © David Gill

The Abbey of St Edmund. The abbey precinct contains the ruined abbey as well as two impressive gatehouses. The present cathedral stands alongside the former abbey church.

IMG_6312

Blythburgh © David Gill

Blythburgh church. Suffolk has numerous medieval churches but Blythburgh is probably one of the most impressive. The setting with the marshes enhances the visit.

IMG_2312

Lavenham © David Gill

Lavenham, Guildhall. The Guildhall at Lavenham stood at the heart of the medieval community.

Clare Castle

Clare Castle © David Gill

Clare Castle. It is hard to beat a castle that has a (disused) railway station in its outer bailey. The castle provides good views over Clare with its splendid church.

IMG_3828

Orford Castle © David Gill

Orford Castle. The castle at Orford provides a wonderful platform to view part of the Suffolk coast including the twentieth century Cold War remains on Orford Ness.

IMG_3935

Ickworth © David Gill

Ickworth. The Rotunda at Ickworth dominates the landscape and can be viewed from the Italianate gardens.

IMG_1938-Edit

Museum of East Anglian Life © David Gill

Museum of East Anglian Life. This outdoor museum in Stowmarket brings together different elements of rural life in the region. The riverside walk provides a good opportunity to spot wildlife.

IMG_0448-Edit

East Anglia Transport Museum © David Gill

East Anglia Transport Museum. This gem of a museum provides train, tram and trolleybus rides, exhibits of signs, and displays from the now dismantled Southwold railway.

IMG_0666

Palace House, Newmarket © David Gill

Newmarket, Palace House. Newmarket is synonymous with horseracing and the exhibitions have everything from Greek pottery to modern art, physiological displays, and memorabilia. Visitors can even take an automated ride.

This is very much a personal list, and it reflects some of the key locations.

 

Guidebooks by W. Douglas Simpson

Scottish_castles_HMSO

1959 (6th impress. 1969)

W. Douglas Simpson (1896–1968) prepared a series of Ministry guidebook for sites in State Guardianship. He was lecturer in British History at the University of Aberdeen (by 1924), and then He served as Librarian and Registrar for the University of Aberdeen from 1926 through to 1966. He served as Chair of the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland. He was awarded OBE (1954) and CBE (1962).

In 1959 Simpson prepared Scottish Castles: An Introduction to the Castles of Scotland (HMSO, 1959). In the Foreword he wrote: ‘Those who read this little book will come to realise that, small and poor as it has always been, Scotland yet possesses a distinctive castellated architecture, and one of which any nation might be proud’. There are eight sections:

  • The earliest castles
  • Castles of enceinte
  • The early tower houses
  • Bastard feudalism and the later castles
  • The later tower houses
  • The royal palaces
  • Firearms and the later “House of Fence”
  • The Scottish baronial style

Portrait here.

Several of the castles and abbeys he studied were located around Aberdeen: Tolquhon Castle (1948), Huntly Castle (1954), Kildrummy and Glenbuchat (1957); the Abbey of Deer (1952).

Kirkcudbrightshire: Threave Castle (1948)

Angus: Edzell Castle (1952); Restenneth Priory (1952)

Isle of Bute: Rothesay Castle (1952)

Midlothian: Craigmillar (1954), Crichton (1957)

East Lothian: Hailes Castle

Inverness-shire: Urquhart (1964); Beauly Priory (1954)

Roxburghshire: Hermitage (1957)

Lanarkshire: Bothwell Castle (1958)

Orkney: Kirkwall (1965)

The guidebook for Dunstaffnage (1981) contains his draft.

Scotland_AM6

(1954)

He also prepared (with V. Gordon Childe) the Illustrated Guide to Ancient Monuments … vol 6: Scotland (1954).

He prepared one guidebook for the National Trust for Scotland: Craigievar Castle, the rock of Mar (1966) (NTS). This castle is located to the west of Aberdeen.

Simpson also prepared two guidebooks for castles in England: Brough Castle, Cumbria (1949; repr. 1969) (now English Heritage); Bodiam Castle (1965) for the National Trust.

 

Hall, A. (2004, September 23). Simpson, William Douglas (1896–1968), archaeologist and historian. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. Retrieved 5 Aug. 2018, from http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-49530.

 

Sutton Hoo: a dry summer

My photographs of Sutton Hoo taken in May and August of this year show how the high temperatures and low rainfall have had transformed the archaeological landscape of NT Sutton Hoo. The dry conditions are highlighting features.

Orford Ness Lighthouse and the sea

IMG_1346-Edit

Orford Ness Lighthouse © David Gill

Work is continuing to protect the lighthouse on Orford Ness, Suffolk from further encroachment by the sea (‘Orfordness Lighthouse: Volunteers’ battle against the sea‘, BBC News 12 August 2018).

The lighthouse is now managed by the Orfordness Lighthouse Trust. It was constructed in 1792.

IMG_1327-Edit copy

Orford Ness Lighthouse © David Gill

New Excavations at Sutton Hoo

IMG_1311-Edit

Sutton Hoo excavations, June 2018 © David Gill

Some investigatory excavations were taking place at National Trust Sutton Hoo this last week in preparation for the construction of a viewing tower adjacent to the mound where the ship burial was excavation. This HLF funded project will enhance the public experience of what is one of the most important archaeological sites in Suffolk.

Archaeologists from MOLA have been investigating a Bronze Age ditch feature (with some contextualised pottery).

In 2015 a temporary scaffolding tower was erected to see how it changed the way that the public viewed the mounds.

IMG_1316-Edit

Sutton Hoo excavations, June 2018 © David Gill

Mottistone: tea and scone

Mottistone_0160-Edit

There are some heritage tea-rooms that deserve a special mention, and this includes NT Mottistone on the Isle of Wight. First, there was a warm welcome that makes a big difference. Second, tea was served in a proper teapot and cups and saucers were provided. Third, the scone was well above the normal standard for NT fare. Fourth (and outside the control of the NT), the sun shone.

Tea with the National Trust has become a rather mixed affair with a move away from quality tea blenders, and with a very bland, and often disappointing, range of cakes on offer. At least there is a corner of an island that takes pride in what it has to offer.