History Matters Project: a compendium of evidence
This is the seventh edition of our rolling compendium, which attempts to draw together a range of recent developments that turn on the place of history in the public square – including the removal of certain statues on public display, the renaming of buildings and places, and changes to the way history is taught in educational curricula. In cataloguing these examples, we do not offer any judgment on the actions of the individual or institution in question, today or in the past. Our aim is simply to provide a clear documentary record of what is happening – which can help inform public debate on these issues. At present, the evidence confirms that history is the most active front in a new culture war, and that action is being taken widely and quickly in a way that does not reflect public opinion or growing concern over our treatment of the past.
Policy Exchange renews a call for evidence asking museum directors, curators, teachers and the wider public to share their experiences and concerns about the ways in which history is being politicised, and sometimes distorted, sending their evidence to callforevidence@policyexchang
1. Lambeth Council
Lambeth Council has published a report on statues, memorials and street names “that have associations with the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and colonialism”. This report will be used to “support Lambeth’s public consultation process on the implications for this within the borough.”
2. Aberdeen City Council
Aberdeen City Council has reportedly been asking internally if Mary Slessor is now “problematic” because she “imposed her Christian views” on the people of Nigeria. A council spokesman said there were no plans to remove Slessor from the displays in Provost Skene’s House.
In a statement, Aberdeen City Council said:
“The gallery team is reviewing all the historic figures represented in Provost Skene’s House in the context of de-colonisation and also in response to the #BLM movement. However, there is currently no plan to remove Aberdeen-born missionary Mary Slessor from Provost Skene’s House displays.
Gallery staff were posing the question, to themselves, about whether the legacies of people represented in the city’s collections in general should be reconsidered. The phrase “could also be considered problematic” was used only as gallery staff tried to consider viewpoints that may be held elsewhere.
Very little exists in the city’s collection that is directly linked to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade however the gallery team are currently exploring indirect links found in the collection with external partners such as items that reference the coffee, sugar and mahogany trade. Colonialism is also an important issue, in some but not all cases inextricably linked with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but also relevant to our colonial past in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.”
Policy Exchange History Matters Project
There’s no need to review missionary, historians insist, The Times, 9th November 2020
3. Cardiff Council
Cardiff Council has submitted an application to remove the City Hall statue of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton GCB.
“This Council believes:
- The behaviour of Picton as Governor of Trinidad was abhorrent, even in his own era, and not deserving of a place in the Heroes of Wales collection.
- That heightened awareness about the history of slavery must include a reassessment of the regard in which we hold Picton, and many others who were actors and beneficiaries of slavery.
- That in hindsight it was an error to have included Picton as an option in the 1916 public vote, and an error that he had not been removed sooner.
- That a democratic decision, by the representatives of the people of Cardiff, to remove the statue will send a message to Black people in Cardiff and across the world that the city recognises the role people like Picton played in slavery, and that we must seek to address the systemic racism that still exists due to slavery and Empire.
- To remove the statue of Sir Thomas Picton from the Marble Hall, and to consider placing it elsewhere with a clear explanation of his actions.
- To welcome the introduction of a Task Force by the Leader to address the inequalities BAME people face and to include representation from Cardiff’s Black communities
- To implement the Task Force recommendations
- That Black lives matter, and that none of us are equal until all of us are equal.’
4. Colston School, Bristol
Colston Girl’s School in Bristol will be renamed Montpelier High School.
“129 years after its foundation in 1891, the name Colston’s Girls’ School will soon be replaced by a new name selected by current students and staff. Last month the school announced its decision to rebrand and this week students and staff have been voting to select a new name. This afternoon, principal Kerry McCullagh announced the result of the vote during a whole-school virtual assembly, revealing that the new name of the school will be Montpelier High School. Kerry McCullagh told students that they had “navigated a complex and emotional issue with skill and maturity” and that they had “shown respect for others throughout the process, acknowledging that there are many views and opinions that reach far beyond the city”. She said that the school is proud to be part of the Montpelier community and that the new name would allow the school to forge a new identity that represents its diverse and inclusive community.”
5. De Montfort University
De Montfort University Student’s Union has launched a petition to rename the university. In a statement, the Executive Officer Team said:
“As your Executive Officer team at De Montfort Students’ Union (DSU), we always strive to improve your student experience and hold the university to account when we believe improvements need to be made. While in post we work on a range of activities including student-led initiatives, issues affecting you and projects which we were voted in for. As well as this, every year, as a team we decide and agree on one joint objective to make long lasting change following conversations with students. This year we have chosen a project that we truly believe will leave a legacy that we can be proud of.
Within this statement we will be explaining what our shared objective is and why we have chosen it. It is with pride that we share this with you today and we hope you share our passion for this campaign.
De Montfort University (DMU) is named after Simon de Montfort, who although is known to be the Father of what we would call modern day democracy, was also known for his anti-Semitic views and hatred towards the Jewish community, which ultimately led to the expulsion of the entire community from Leicester and the massacre of hundreds of Jews across the country. His is not a name we believe anyone within our community would want to be associated with; and after conversations with key stakeholders we are confident that the campaign we are pursuing is the correct one.
De Montfort is not a name we should be promoting. This is not a name we say with pride. It is not reflective of our core values and beliefs.
Therefore, as of this moment, your Executive Officer team of 20/21 are formally launching a campaign to change the name of De Montfort University.
The changing of the university’s name has been spoken about in whispers by students, staff and the local community for years and it’s time we bring it to the forefront. This should not just be a virtue signalling act. Alongside the change of the name, we want to ensure that the university actively begins to start dismantling any signs of antisemitism within the institution.
In June this year, DMU committed to critique and challenge themselves to prove to the student community that they will change and become a truly anti-racist university. It is now time to show us. Show us that they are passionate about becoming the best university they, and we, can possibly be – one that truly embraces equality and diversity.
We ask that the university pledges to start the work that will ultimately lead to changing the name by December 2023.
We want to make sure this process is as transparent as possible. We will ensure that we continually gather feedback from you and other stakeholders as our priority; this will start in January with a range of initiatives which will allow you to take part in the conversation. Ultimately, as your Executive Officers, our job is to amplify your voices, and we will use your feedback to consult with the university.
We understand you may have some questions, which we are happy to answer. If you do have any questions please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’re interested in finding out more information about Simon de Montfort please visit https://linktr.ee/SimonDeMontfort
We look forward to hearing from you,
Aisha Ismail, Student Opportunities & Engagement Executive
Benjamin Smith, Welfare Executive
Diya Rattanpal, Equality & Diversity Executive
Joanna Dine-Hart, Union Development Executive
Laura Flowers, Academic Executive”
6. All Souls College, Oxford
All Souls College’s Governing Body has announced that they will no longer call their college library ‘the Codrington Library’. In a statement, the Governing Body said:
“Christopher Codrington, a former Fellow of All Souls, died in 1710, leaving a bequest of £10,000 to the College for building a new library and stocking it with books; this new library became generally known as the Codrington Library, although that name was never formally adopted by the Statutes of the College. Codrington’s wealth derived largely from his family’s activities in the West Indies, where they owned plantations worked by enslaved people of African descent.
Over the last three years the College has taken several steps to address the problematic nature of the Codrington legacy. It has erected a large memorial plaque at the entrance to the Library, ‘In memory of those who worked in slavery on the Codrington plantations in the West Indies’. It has pledged a series of donations to Codrington College, Barbados (a theological college also founded by a bequest in Codrington’s will) to a total of £100,000. And it has set up three fully funded graduate studentships at Oxford for students from the Caribbean; in effect, £6 million of the College’s endowment is now set aside, on a permanent basis, to produce the income that funds these studentships.
At a recent meeting of its Governing Body, All Souls College decided to cease to refer to the College Library as ‘the Codrington Library’.
The College also decided that the statue of Codrington which stands at the centre of the Library will remain there. Rather than seek to remove it the College will investigate further forms of memorialisation and contextualisation within the library, which will draw attention to the presence of enslaved people on the Codrington plantations, and will express the College’s abhorrence of slavery. The College also decided to investigate some further academic initiatives that would address the issue of the Codrington legacy.”
7. Jesus College, Cambridge
Jesus College has proposed to the Church of England authorities that Tobias Rustat’s memorial should be removed from the Chapel.
Legacy of Slavery Working Party recommendations – 3 November 2020
“Last November, I wrote to you about the College Council’s decisions to return the Benin Bronze statue of a cockerel and to acknowledge and contextualise Tobias Rustat’s role in our history. Many of you replied, with a strong majority expressing support.
We remain committed to the decision to return the Bronze. We are in correspondence with the current Oba in Benin and have made good progress with the associated administrative tasks, despite the outbreak of COVID-19 slowing the process down. In October 2020 the Charity Commission agreed in principle that the College can transfer the Benin Bronze to the Royal Court of Benin. We will share further details as soon as possible.
I am writing today to let you know about decisions taken by College Council following recommendations from our Legacy of Slavery Working Party regarding Tobias Rustat. It is important to me that every member of our community is aware of the decisions we have taken and understands the evidence that supports them.
The context and our aims
Rustat’s father was a Jesuan and Tobias Rustat became one of our College’s largest benefactors before the twentieth century, helping to shape the College as we know it today. Rustat’s personal wealth came from his career as a courtier in the mid-17th Century, and he added to his wealth when he became an investor in a series of slave-trading companies, most notably the Royal African Company. In his recent book, historian William Pettigrew states that the Royal African Company: “shipped more enslaved African women, men and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade.” Investors were fully aware of its activities and intended to profit from this brutal and sustained trade.
Rustat was also a benefactor of the University Library and a small stone statue of him stands at Old Schools, the original site of the Library. We are part of the Collegiate University and our decisions are in line with the outcomes of their similar review of Rustat, which will be announced on their website today.
We will not erase Rustat from our history. The College Council has considered where he is explicitly celebrated versus where he is mentioned in a factual manner. As a first step, Council will commission a plaque, which critically acknowledges Rustat’s – and hence the College’s – links to the slave trade. It will be placed at the entrance to the College.
Rustat’s veneration within College
Rustat’s large marble memorial dominates the wall to your right as you enter Chapel, opposite the altar. The work of Grinling Gibbons’ atelier, Rustat commissioned the monument and celebratory inscription during his lifetime when he was already a major College donor.
Following a request in Rustat’s will, he was buried in Chapel and the monument installed, most probably in its current location. It was later moved at least twice, arriving back in its current location in 1922. Council decided that the memorial represents a celebration of Rustat, which is incompatible with the Chapel as an inclusive community and a place of collective wellbeing, and proposed that it should be removed. Our current intention is to relocate the memorial to an educational exhibition space.
As a Grade I listed building, this change falls under Faculty Jurisdiction Rules operated by the Church of England. In June, the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that the Church was “very carefully” reviewing statues at major places of worship to see “if they all should be there”. The Dean of Chapel and I have had several constructive discussions with representatives from the Diocese of Ely about the LSWP’s recommendations, and the outcomes of these conversations were considered by Council. The Church is very supportive of our considerations and will make a decision about our proposal to remove the memorial over the next few months.
Rustat’s image and name
In January 2020, the College’s Rustat Feast and the Rustat Conferences – which were founded in 2009 – were renamed.
Until recently, Rustat’s portrait hung in the Senior Combination Room, the home of the Fellowship. It will be relocated to the College’s Works of Art storage and may be displayed in future as part of an educational exhibition accompanied by critical contextualisation.
In Hall, there is a 19th-century window with many coats of arms and names, including Rustat’s. Council decided that as this window does not particularly celebrate Rustat, it should remain as it is.
The Rustat scholars’, widows’ and clergy children’s funds, created by the terms of his will, cannot easily be renamed or reallocated due to stringent charity law conditions. After considering the good that the funds do, Council ensured that going forward, Rustat’s role in the slave trade will be conveyed to potential recipients.
Rustat’s name will remain on our donor wall in Cloister Court. The heading of the wall is translated as: ‘Through their very large donations they have endowed this College’, which is historical fact.
Our Legacy of Slavery Inquiry started in May 2019, following the University’s Inquiry launched a few weeks earlier. The LSWP will continue with its work; please visit the Inquiry webpage for the latest news, including a link to the public version of this announcement when it is made available later today.
Policy Exchange History Matters Project – Call for Evidence
Jesus College Legacy of Slavery Working Party (LSWP) – November 2020: Update on implementation of LSWP actions
Save the Statue & Memorial to Tobias Rustat Petition, Change.org
8. Bodleian Library
Extracts from: News from the Bodleian Libraries – November 2020
“It goes without saying that 2020 has been a year for the history books: apart from the ongoing, devastating impact of COVID-19, we saw a wave of protests across the world following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA back in May. This global movement was reflected here in Oxford as people took to the streets to challenge social prejudice and institutional racism during the Black Lives Matter protests. In addition, the Rhodes Must Fall 2.0 campaign demanded accountability from the University of Oxford on the legacy of Cecil Rhodes. Now more than ever it is important to keep pushing for reform within our institutions, workplaces and social groups.
Protests against injustice are nothing new. As part of our Race and Diversity Narratives internship with the Museum of Oxfordand the Bodleian Libraries, we engaged critically with protest history from the archives. We focussed specifically on links between the Rhodes Must Fall Movement 2.0 and the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) from the 1960s onwards. The Bodleian Libraries have an extensive collection on the AAM, and have recently acquired posters from the Rhodes Must Fall protests.
Through our research we were able to trace links between the past and the present, establishing a continuing narrative of racial injustice within Oxford but also of the citizens’ fight against it. Although the city and University continue to be complicit in acts of racial injustice and discrimination, one cannot deny that individuals have also continued to rise against this injustice. The question remains: why does racial discrimination continue, despite well over half a century of activism?
Ultimately, we have reflected on the empty symbolism behind Black History Month and the relationship that institutions have with this construct. In reality, any actual progress, any real move towards equality must come from conversations and action beyond those of any one institution or any single month.”
“Part of the Changing the Narrative project, this list suggests a variety of books including memoirs, academic texts and calls to arms. Topics covered include books to start a conversation, backgrounds on the British and US context, information on decolonising the curriculum and the intersectionality of anti-racism work with other movements for social justice.”
Policy Exchange History Matters Project – Call for Evidence
9. University of East Anglia
The University of East Anglia has organised an online seminar entitled ‘Decolonisation: Meaning and significance of decolonising academia’.
“Decolonisation: Meaning and significance of decolonising academia: 26th November (Thu) 12-1pm GMT
Prof. Dibyesh Anand and Dr. Claire Hynes in conversation with PhD Researcher Touseef Mir
In this online seminar series ‘Decolonising Academia: Realisation and Beyond’, we focus on what ‘decolonisation’—a term that has gained much traction in recent times and has generated various critique—entails in academia, and the role of academics in challenging colonial structures that form the foundations of the modern world. This seminar series is organised by PhD researchers in International Development and Politics: Francesca Chiu, Touseef Mir, and Moé Suzuki, supported by the School of International Development and the University of Sanctuary.
The second session of this series will focus on the meaning and significance of ‘decolonisation’, and why academia in general and academics in particular should care about it. We invite Prof. Dibyesh Anand from the University of Westminster and Dr. Claire Hynes from UEA to discuss the theme in conversation with Touseef Mir, PhD researcher in International Development at UEA.
Details and sign-up link here: https://decolonisingacademiauea.wordpress.com/
This seminar is open to all (not just those affiliated with UEA or academic institutions), so please do share widely!”
Policy Exchange History Matters Project – Call for Evidence
Decolonising Academia: Realisation and Beyond – nline seminar series at the University of East Anglia
10. Winston Churchill’s legacy – Imperial War Museum
Press articles have claimed that Winston Churchill’s legacy would be reviewed by the Imperial War Museum. This has been denied by the IWM. In a statement, the Museum said:
“Like any world-leading museum, IWM is always considering how its complex subject matter is presented to audiences across all of its branches and is always prepared to answer any questions which may occur as a result of political or social protest. At Churchill War Rooms, the Churchill Museum tells the detailed story of arguably one of our country’s greatest leaders; from his role in the First World War and the Second World War, through to his death and legacy. We have no plans in place to reinterpret how we present him at any of our branches, including Churchill War Rooms.”
Policy Exchange History Matters Project
Winston Churchill’s legacy reviewed by Imperial War Museum in wake of Black Lives Matter movement – The Telegraph
11. Unknown Warrior – National Army Museum
Press articles have reported that National Army Museum research suggests “bias may have influenced the selection of the body whose remains were interred at Westminster Abbey”. The National Army Museum has responded by releasing the following statement:
“We are really saddened by the tone, focus and angle taken in the articles in both The Sunday Telegraph and Mail Online last weekend which referred to our exhibition Buried Among Kings: The Story of the Unknown Warrior. This exhibition is not a story of identity politics, but a tale of national remembrance. Indeed, in this season of remembrance the exhibition reveals the story of the Unknown Warrior; the emergence of the idea, how it was made reality, his journey home, burial and incredible global legacy. This exhibition honours our Unknown Warrior. This is also a story about a nation and empire mourning its immeasurable loss after the First World War. It is a tale of grieving families unable to stand and pray by the graves of missing loved ones and how the British people determined to never forget the sacrifices of their soldiers. We are proud to be able to tell this story. Come and see it for yourself.”
Statement – National Army Museum
12. Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle will replace a sign describing British soldiers who put down the 1857 Indian Rebellion as “heroes” after a visitor complained that it “pandered to imperialism”.
In a statement, Historic Environment Scotland said:
“We were contacted by a member of the public about the wording on a panel which related to events around the siege of Lucknow. We agreed the use of the contemporary British description of the regiment as the ‘Heroes of Lucknow’ lacked qualification in the context of the siege and agreed fuller context of the siege, including from an Indian perspective is critical for our visitors to better understand this event and why it led to the erection of the India Cross on the Esplanade at Edinburgh Castle. As such, one of our historians is currently undertaking research into the siege to ensure the new content on an updated panel reflects this.”
A petition has been launched to protest against the proposed removal of the word ‘heroes’ from the India Cross sign commemorating soldiers who gave their lives for their country.
Source: Policy Exchange History Matters Project
Petition: Don’t remove the word “heroes” from the India Cross war memorial
13. Museums Association
The Museums Association has said “museums are not neutral” and has supported “museum activism”. In its manifesto for museum learning and engagement, the MA said:
Museums are not neutral. Museum activism should be based on listening, acting and delivering with our communities.
Museum activism is about taking positive action to make the world a better place. Museums are part of the fabric of society and are impacted by and can have an impact on events outside their walls.
Museum activism can mean supporting campaigns that our communities care about in an open and collaborative way. This could be working on issues where museums, through their collections, interpretation and programming, can add understanding, knowledge and perspectives on issues such as anti-racism and the climate crisis.
Museums have a responsibility to work with their communities to overcome the challenges of poverty and exclusion and to achieve equality of outcomes.
Social justice in museums is based on the principle of the right to equality of access and participation for all. It means that the whole of the public can benefit from the collections and resources of museums and that everyone can participate and contribute equally.
Social justice means museums working with their communities to enhance health and wellbeing, create better places to live and work, and provide opportunities for debate and reflection.
Meaningful participation and volunteering can promote self-confidence and improve the life chances of participants, including overcoming social isolation and providing opportunities to develop skills and improve employability.
Collections belong to communities and without people museums are just storage warehouses. Collections are for public use.
Collections matter to many people, and for them to be a source of understanding and empowerment, people need access to them. Museums should work with their communities to ensure that collections are empowering, relevant and dynamic.
This means adopting a proactive approach to the democratisation and decolonisation of collections; reinterpreting collections with communities; and supporting partnerships and knowledge sharing.
Museums should be transparent about the objects they hold and work with communities to understand, interpret and rationalise collections.
This Manifesto was written by David Anderson, director-general, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Dhikshana Pering, head of engagement and skills, Somerset House and Sharon Heal, director of the Museums Association, after extensive consultation and engagement with museum workers throughout the UK. It has been produced in collaboration with Engage and the Group for Education in Museums, and with support from the Art Fund.”
14. Art Fund
The Art Fund (formerly the National Art Collections Fund) shares “the concerns expressed by the Museums Association (MA) in its response” to the Culture Secretary’s letter asking Arm’s Length Bodies to remain impartial. In a statement entitled “national museums, heritage, and telling our stories”, published on 16th November 2020, the Art Fund said:
“Museums have a crucial role to play in our evolving understanding of our past. They are central to local and national storytelling. They help us to appreciate and learn from our history, and provoke and inspire us to think about what our past means for our present and future.
In a recent letter to national museums and cultural bodies outlining the government’s position on contested heritage, DCMS Secretary of State Oliver Dowden MP recognised that statues and historical objects ‘play an important role in teaching us about our past, with all its faults’ and ‘we should seek to contextualise or reinterpret them in a way that enables the public to learn about them in their entirety’. We see many museums doing this, as they have always adapted to new and emerging issues, and we are proud to support museums and curators doing this important work through many of our funding programmes.
However we share the concerns expressed by the Museums Association (MA) in its response to the letter. The MA notes that the letter ‘asks museums to notify the government of any activities in this area; implies that government funding may be withheld if museums do not comply; and denies museums the responsibility to take carefully considered decisions about contested heritage in consultation with staff and their communities.’
The MA is right to highlight the importance of the arm’s length principle when it comes to national museums and cultural bodies addressing complex issues. We support the MA in calling on government to respect that fundamental principle. We also support the MA’s Code of Ethics, the first principle of which is that museums should ‘ensure editorial integrity in programming and interpretation’ and ‘resist attempts to influence interpretation or content by particular interest groups, including lenders, donors and funders’.
We look forward to hearing about the outcomes of a planned roundtable with museums and government on this issue.”
Art Fund statement on national museums, heritage, and telling our stories, 16 November 2020
Our response to Oliver Dowden’s letter on contested heritage, Museums Association
Letter from Culture Secretary on HM Government position on contested heritage, DCMS, 8 September 2020
15. National Trust Members’ Broadcast
National Trust members have criticised the charity’s board of directors for becoming too political, and for pursuing “a witch hunt into the lives of past property owners” and a “woke agenda”. Several members condemned the Trust for “defaming” Churchill’s memory in a recent report linking its properties to colonialism and slavery. Members also asked the following questions:
“Why is the Trust spending ill-afforded sums on researching slavery within houses and generously gifted properties and land? The majority of members just want to see beautiful houses and gardens, not have others’ opinions pushed down their throats.”
“Why has the National Trust been instigating a witch hunt into the lives of past property owners? Your members wish to enjoy the properties gifted in good faith without having to endure the unfortunate woke agenda of the modern Trust management.”
“Why doesn’t the Trust concentrate on their upkeep and stop being political? History is history – you will lose members and waste money. We intend stopping our membership.”
“Why is the National Trust pandering to the woke brigade? Will you reconsider your ill-advised foray into research that links colonialism to slavery? With the best of intentions, the result is to blacken the names of many of our heroes and horrify loyal National Trust members.”
Hilary McGrady, the Trust’s director general said: “The majority if our visitors just want to enjoy our properties – and of course they do – but there will be people who want to know more and we need to be able to respond to that as well.
“This is a really valid thing for the Trust to do. It is in no way about shaming anybody. The money, we strongly believe, has been spent well.”
On the reference to Churchill in the report, she added: “There was a connection – he was Secretary of State for the colonies. I trust the public to be able to hold all of that information and come to their own conclusion. We are not going to trying to hammer this into people.”
National Trust Members Broadcast
16. Westminster Hall debate – National Trust
During a Westminster Hall debate, Conservative MP Dr Andrew Murrison accused the National Trust of a “dramatic change of direction” that had put it at odds with its members, volunteers and workforce. Nigel Huddleston MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said the National Trust “must focus on its core functions: to curate and preserve historic houses, gardens and landscapes for everyone to enjoy”.
Dr Murrison: “The trust mission is clearly laid out in statute: to be clerk of works to a large wedge of our national treasures. There is evidence, however, that in recent years the trust—frustrated no doubt with that simple custodial function—has been interpreting its remit much more broadly. I submit that that requires scrutiny.
The key to the unhappiness expressed in recent times is contained within a collection of documents of varying status, some leaked, some published. The material, entitled “Towards a 10-year vision for place and experience”, is a blueprint for a different National Trust from that envisaged in statute in 1907 and in subsequent National Trust Acts.
That document might have been convincingly dismissed as a think piece had it not been followed by a series of supporting “Reset” documents. Taken together with the recently announced round of redundancies and reduction in access to small sites, it amounts to a dramatic change in direction—one that has alarmed the trust’s members, volunteers and workforce, and provoked a storm in the media.
Of particular concern is the proposed closure of smaller houses, I would say under the cover of covid-19. Those rather crudely referred to by the trust as treasure houses, including Stourhead, have always cross-subsidised those smaller properties. That has been the business model, which is commendable. We now find the properties that have been sustained by that model—for example, George Stephenson’s house in Northumberland—are being closed. It could be that they are closed permanently.
We also find that it is not receipts, per se, that are the problem, because the outdoorsy attractions appear not to be in the crosshairs. Rather, the issue is with buildings, particularly what are referred to as mansions. The trust says it does not want to close or repurpose its sites, but has to cut its cloth because of covid-19. But look at its reserves, as well as its access to a huge volunteer workforce, together with furlough and other assistance given by Government during this crisis, and ask whether the trust, faced with the inflexibility of covenants and reserves, has approached either the Charity Commission or the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to see what statutory or non-statutory mechanisms there might be to assist in freeing up funds in these difficult times, in order to support its charitable purposes.
On top of that, we have a hobnailed boot of a document called, “Addressing our histories of colonialism and historic slavery”, which is considered sufficiently off-piste to attract the interest of the Charity Commission as regulator.
Much of what we have had from the National Trust in recent times is entirely commensurate with the fears expressed by many that what it is doing, in its own terms and the terms of the leaked documents we have seen, is to “dial down” its role as what it calls a “major national cultural institution”. We see the corporate upper lip curling at an “outdated mansion experience” that is of interest only to what it calls a “niche audience”, which is apparently “dwindling”. It is a “niche audience” that was on the rise before lockdown and that is bigger even now than the population of the Republic of Ireland, but it is one that the trust’s clairvoyants anticipate will have moved on, as the trust seeks to “flex its mansion offer to create more active, fun and useful experiences that our audiences will be looking for in the future.”
I have “fun” every time I go to a National Trust property —that is the whole point of going—and it is not clear to me what “useful” means, but we do learn that “Everywhere…we will move away from a narrow focus on family and art history.”
This has been pejoratively described as the triumph of the “trendies” over the “tweedies”. What it means in practice is that professional curator posts will fall from 111 to 80. There will be a new curator and it will not surprise right hon. and hon. Members to learn that that curator will be called “curator of repurposing historic houses”.
But out will go actual curators—those internationally renowned experts and scholars, who are specialists in one of the world’s greatest collections.
I suspect that most of the membership, like me and my family, flock to National Trust properties to admire an elegant pile of bricks or a beautiful landscape before going for a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake—job done, and happy days. It is leisure, it is breathing space, it is succour for the soul and a welcome break from the remorseless hectoring about this and that, to which, as citizens, we are subjected day in, day out.
There are those, particularly on the hard left and perhaps within the trust’s hierarchy, who will say that an organisation makes a political statement every time that it does not advance an opinion—that silence is violence. But the National Trust needs to be a politics-free space, a great mediating institution, and not an organ for promulgating a particular world view, whether one sympathises with that view or not. That, surely, is the service that it renders to civil society.
My parents liked to drag me and my brother around National Trust properties when we were younger. Fifty years on, they all merge into a perpetual search for ice cream, but I do have one abiding recollection, and it is not some politically correct right-on narrative, misspelt on a piece of slate. It is inequality. Those great houses stand as silent witness to an unequal past. We do not need to be force-fed that by the trust’s high command; it is there and it is in your face. It is also plain to most visitors that the wealth required to throw up those mini-palaces did not often come from a post office savings account. Some of that money was highly questionable—some of it very dirty indeed by today’s standards and even by the standards of the day. But here we are in 2020, with the public—on whose backs, to a greater or lesser degree, those palaces were built—possessing them. That is a triumph and a restitution.
I mentioned that I did not want to be misconstrued or misunderstood, and it is therefore with trepidation and in anticipation of a wall of hate mail and trolling that I come to the document—the trust’s slavery and colonialism report. It is a catalogue of its properties that have some links to those subjects, but much of it is flimsy and tendentious. In 2013, English Heritage published “Slavery and the British country house”, which is a serious, thoughtful, measured contribution to a subject of significant public interest, in contrast with the National Trust’s colonialism and slavery report, whose title, which conflates two things as a common evil, gives the game away. The conflation gets worse because, wittingly or not, it by association diminishes towering figures in British history, notably Winston Churchill. The trust speaks of context, but where is the context for a man who, more than any other, stood against fascism, racism and antisemitism? The best that could be said of that piece of work is that it is plain shoddy. Otherwise, we are left to conclude that it is indicative of the trust’s corporate mindset.”
17. Symbols of Slavery – National Trust
Professor Corinne Fowler has said exotic wood, Chinese wallpaper and ivory carvings at Britain’s stately homes should be labelled as symbols of slavery. Writing in the BBC History magazine, Professor Fowler said:
“There is irrefutable evidence that country houses have significant connections to people and places all over the world”
“Visitors can’t fail to notice the global character of country houses – it’s there in the exotic woods, Chinese wallpapers and ivory carvings that fill their collections.”
“What is less obvious is the stories of East India Company trading, colonial administration or enslavement that underpin them. For this reason, curators will need to provide clear evidence of the colonial connection to combat claims that they are making it all up.”
“Talking about colonialism in country houses generates controversy precisely because the history is repressed.”
“Stately homes are not conventionally associated with colonialism. But a 2007 report into English Heritage houses built during the period of transatlantic slavery uncovered abundant links. These ranged from slave-trading and plantation ownership. The tranquil grounds contrasted sharply with the enslaved labour that enabled the flow of colonial wealth to insuring slave-ships and buying shares in the South Sea and Royal African Companies whose business was selling enslaved people.”
“Before the Black Lives Matter protests, stately homes conventionally provided visitors with information about the British lives of landowners and, sometimes, their wives and servants. Yet much has changed. This summer, the National Trust declared that many of its places “have direct and indirect links to slavery and colonialism”. The Trust’s director of culture and engagement, John Orna-Ornstein, recently stated that “Black Lives Matter has absolutely made us realise that we need to move more quickly to address those histories and to be as open about them as possible”.
This new approach is ethically and historically just, but is not universally welcomed. My 2019 survey of Daily Mail reader responses to previous attempts to talk about country houses’ colonial links revealed a common objection: “The past is the past.” As John Agard puts it in his poem Mansfield Park Revisited, slavery talk is unfamiliar amid “afternoon teas” and “well-laid cups”. Nonetheless, three-quarters of respondents to a Policy Exchange survey conducted in June 2020 believe that the National Trust should do more to educate visitors about its links to slavery and colonialism.
“The British empire’s fleeting appearance in the history curriculum does not do justice to the extent to which colonialism shaped the economic and political fortunes of millions of people worldwide – and changed the face of modern Britain. It has been hard for people schooled in this system to think beyond country houses’ local significance.”
18. National Trust for Scotland
The National Trust for Scotland has launched a project called “Facing Our Past”. This project will review its buildings and monuments “to highlight the links to slavery for the millions of visitors who go to the properties each year, as part of their historical interpretation. The properties include Culzean Castle in Ayrshire, Pollok House in Glasgow and the Glenfinnan Monument, erected in tribute to the Jacobites who died in the 1745 uprising. The monument sits on Glenaladale estate, once owned by Alexander Macdonald, who had made his fortune in plantations worked by enslaved people in Jamaica”.
We now know that many National Trust for Scotland properties, including the birthplaces of Robert Burns and Hugh Miller, have a link to slavery.
This is part of a wider black history in Scotland and the charity is committed to expanding knowledge and supporting staff and volunteers to address Scotland’s role in enslavement where this is associated with its properties. With our very large and varied portfolio – of museums, like Culloden and Bannockburn, grand historic houses and humble cottages, gardens and landed estates, the Trust has a unique opportunity to realise this ambition across Scotland.
A new podcast in the charity’s For the Love of Scotland series, hosted by Jacky Bird, explores the project with Dr Jennifer Melville who’s leading the work. Listen to the episode here.
The charity is carrying out a review of its buildings and monuments and plans to highlight the links to slavery for the millions of visitors who go to the properties each year, as part of their historical interpretation. The properties include Culzean Castle in Ayrshire, Pollok House in Glasgow and the Glenfinnan Monument, erected in tribute to the Jacobites who died in the 1745 uprising. The monument sits on Glenaladale estate, once owned by Alexander Macdonald, who had made his fortune in plantations worked by enslaved people in Jamaica.
The two-year research and public engagement project called Facing Our Past, will address such narratives, as Jennifer Melville, who is leading the project, explained: “Curators across the world are very aware that they must look honestly at collections, properties and estates and reveal all the narratives relating to them. It is over ten years since our first project on slavery but we are keen to increase this work and embed a thoroughly researched understanding of it into the visitor experience.
Dr Melville said: “We know that audiences have a thirst for knowledge, which is based in truth and thorough research. Slavery is part of our shared past, our audiences are demanding to know more about this, and the Trust is in a unique position to address this complex history “as owners of estates, gardens, buildings and collections that have been created, improved or funded through the suffering of others, we can bring these truths to life.
“Working collaboratively with several universities, both in Scotland and abroad, and with artists and creative practitioners, will enable us to deepen our knowledge and understanding of our connections with slavery and show how the properties now in our care were funded and enhanced through the enslavement of people by Scots’. A vital part of the project will be public engagement and we are committed hearing from people whose lived experience has been directly shaped by colonialism and historic slavery.”
Philip Long, National Trust for Scotland Chief Executive said: “The National Trust for Scotland has for many years been uncovering the stories of people behind our properties, increasing knowledge of how they came into existence, their relationship with communities, with the land and with wider society. Such histories are as much a part of the heritage we are responsible for – and have a duty to explain – as our duty of care to the physical heritage we are entrusted with. It is an indisputable fact that many of the properties belonging to the Trust have an association with colonialism and slavery; researching into this is therefore important work for us to undertake, as part of the broader research we do in many fields, to look after, understand and explain the heritage in our care.”
Pro Vice Principal Professor Murray Pittock of the University of Glasgow and a Board Member of the National Trust for Scotland said: “Facing our Past is a key initiative in acknowledging the lost and excluded voices of our history, and in enabling our visitors to see the role of individual people and places in opposing, supporting or simply benefiting from the outrage of chattel slavery.”
Frank Black – formerly Country Operations Director of the Africa Development Bank and Head of the Special Liaison Unit (UN/UNCTAD Affairs) in the Secretary-General’s Office of the OECD) now Seattle, USA described the project as: ‘fascinating and extraordinarily timely given what is happening.’
Policy Exchange History Matters Project
Facing our past with Jennifer Melville
19. Sir Geoff Palmer – Museums Galleries Scotland
Sir Geoff Palmer, OBE, will chair “a new independent steering group that will recommend how Scotland’s existing and future museum collections can better recognise and represent a more accurate portrayal of Scotland’s colonial and slavery history.” In a statement, MGS said:
“Today Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS) welcomes Sir Geoff Palmer, OBE, as chair of a new independent steering group that will recommend how Scotland’s existing and future museum collections can better recognise and represent a more accurate portrayal of Scotland’s colonial and slavery history.
The steering group is sponsored by the Scottish Government and coordinated by MGS, as part of Empire, Slavery & Scotland’s Museums: Addressing Our Colonial Legacy, a project to explore how the history of Scotland’s involvement in the British Empire, colonialism, and transatlantic slavery, can be told by Scotland’s museums.
Sir Geoff Palmer is a renowned scientist, human rights activist, Professor Emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, and the first black professor in Scotland. He regularly writes and speaks about Scotland’s role in slavery and colonialism and he brings to the steering group a wealth of knowledge and experience as an anti-racism campaigner.
The independently chaired steering group is diverse in its membership and is representative of relevant expertise and community interests spanning museums, equalities and rights, and education. Seven steering group members have been confirmed to date, with further names to be confirmed this month. These are Silence Chihuri (Fair Justice System for Scotland Group), Foysol Choudhury (Edinburgh and Lothians Regional Equalities Council), Abeer Eladany (University of Aberdeen), Jatin Haria (Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights), Lewis Hou (Science Ceilidh and the Anti-Racist Educator Collective), Steph Scholten (ICOM Ethics Committee and MGS Board member) and Zandra Yeaman (The Hunterian, University of Glasgow).
The steering group will be supported by a range of invited advisors, specialists in relevant related fields, who will lead working groups on specific areas of enquiry.”
Sir Geoff Palmer said:
“It is a great honour to serve as the chair of this new independent steering group. Scotland was involved in slavery and colonialism. The history of this involvement is distributed in our museums in a manner which does not allow an accurate portrayal of this history. The outcome of the activities of our steering group will be to enable museums to use their collections to give an accurate account of Scotland’s involvement in slavery and colonialism. This new educational resource will improve race and community relations within our diverse society”.
Equalities Minister Christina McKelvie said:
“Those who came to Scotland through the slave trade and empire, and their descendants, have made an indelible contribution to our country that should be recognised.
“That’s why, in our 2020-21 Programme for Government, we committed to sponsoring an independent expert group to recommend how Scotland’s existing and future museum collections can better recognise and represent a more accurate portrayal of Scotland’s colonial and slavery history.
“Sir Geoff Palmer and the members of this diverse group will provide relevant expertise and insight and I look forward to hearing their recommendations on how we can deliver the most effective and inclusive approach.”
Lucy Casot, CEO of Museums Galleries Scotland, said:
“We are delighted that Sir Geoff Palmer will chair the steering group for Empire, Slavery, & Scotland’s Museums. We welcome the insight and ambition that he brings to the group, where he will be joined by experts from across sectors and communities of interest.
“Scotland’s museum sector is increasingly vocal in their commitment to use their collections to acknowledge and confront Scotland’s role in slavery and colonialism, and the social, economic, and cultural impacts of it. We look forward to the recommendations from the steering group, which will deepen our learning so we can further support museums to challenge and critically interrogate their own practices and collections.”
MGS will coordinate a national consultation, in collaboration with Glasgow Life, to establish public and expert perspectives on how museums can contribute to representing and reflecting our slavery and colonialism history. A related exercise to identify the work already in progress in this area is now underway.
As a result of this project, and based on the evidence gathered, the steering group will make a set of recommendations to the Scottish Government in 2021 on how museum collections and spaces be used to explore slavery and colonialism.
MGS is currently recruiting a Project Manager to lead on the effective delivery of Empire, Slavery & Scotland’s Museums: Addressing Our Colonial Legacy. Information on the role can be found at https://www.museumsgalleriesscotland.org.uk/jobs/project-manager-empire-slavery-scotland-s-museums-addressing-our-colonial-legacy/
20. “Britain must give the Benin Bronzes back to Africa”
Dan Hicks, Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, has said the Benin Bronzes and other African artefacts should be sent back to their places of origin. In an article in The Telegraph, he said:
“We’ve never needed “world culture” museums more than we do today, as public spaces that celebrate creativity and culture beyond art history’s old Eurocentric lens. But these are also sites of conscience, as the legacies of colonial violence continue to shape power imbalances – not bank vaults or mausoleums but crucial institutions that must be allowed to continue to evolve and change as part of our contemporary world.
So I’ve changed my mind about returning stolen African art. Facing up to their violent histories, it’s time to do more than just shuffle objects around the galleries, or re-write the labels, or use objects merely to point a virtuous finger at the history of empire yet again. It’s time for dialogue about African claims for returns to give way to action, and without those tired cross-references to the “Elgin Marbles”, or any other whataboutist or obscurantist distraction.
We must start by returning the Benin Bronzes.”
Read the rest of the article here.