Historians' Watch

Shared Heritage

This is part of our series on ‘Radical History after Brexit’, exploring the challenges facing radical history after Britain’s departure from the European Union.

The political realignment effected by Brexit and its associated attempts to reconstitute national identity have had an increasing impact upon the British heritage sector, with institutions, as well as individual professionals and academics, finding themselves increasingly targeted in a Conservative attack on pluralistic narratives and viewpoints.

National identity historically draws on ideas of both citizenship and ethnicity, and heritage plays a fundamental role in generating, preserving, and perpetuating the stories we tell about ourselves as a nation. When it privileges dominant ethnic groups’ interpretations of our past, and leaves their comfortable but inaccurate myths unquestioned, heritage fails to underpin an inclusive definition of nationality.

Mirroring the cultural and political divisions of the 2016 referendum campaign, two competing visions of national identity, one open and pluralistic, the other defensive and nationalistic, are set up in contention to each other. On heritage, as in politics, the latter seems ascendant at present, with the right increasingly relying on manufactured “culture war” incidents and opportunities for “patriotic” virtue signalling.

Most directly in the firing line has been the National Trust, following its release in September of a report into the legacies of enslavement and colonialism linked to its properties. Similar research projects have been undertaken on behalf of arts and heritage organisations, councils, universities, charities, corporations, and institutions of many types across the country in recent years.

In response to a 115-page report into 93 properties, the right-wing press have focused almost entirely upon Winston Churchill, whose reputation they claim was “tainted” by the report. Criticism from Tory politicians and the media has followed an increasingly familiar pattern of equating any attempt to present new historical viewpoints and evidence that questions previously accepted and comforting myths about Britain’s historic role in imperialism and racialisation as an unpatriotic attack on the nation itself by “woke” “elitist bourgeois liberals”.

Statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square during a 2019 anti-Brexit protest (Wikicommons).

Having conducted institutional reviews into the links of university donors to financial legacies of enslavement, I am acutely aware of the painstakingly detailed and highly-skilled work that Corrine Fowler and her collaborators conducting the National Trust report have put in. Drawing on broad bases of knowledge of national and international histories, researchers in this area use estate records, financial documents, and extensive genealogy to build complex family trees, trace wealth through generations, and construct detailed individual biographies from a vast range of sources.

The stories we have told about our heritage sites and cornerstone institutions have, until now, almost exclusively been framed in the terms of colonised and racialised understandings of the past, leaving untraced financial and economic legacies, personal stories never previously documented or highlighted, and structural biases in the collection, description, and exposition of sites and objects. As a first stage of responding to these challenges, the Trust report showcases public history at its best, offering widespread and tangible social and cultural impacts, delivering the type of re-evaluative work that is vital in piecing together these amnesiac aspects of our national and global past to inform a pluralistic and holistic appreciation of national history and identity.

The heritage sector, however, is particularly susceptible to government intimidation because of its funding models, especially as the pandemic has removed the vast majority of customer income. Trusts have relied heavily upon furlough schemes and many have implemented staffing cuts. The large number of workers in the industry employed on casual and freelance bases have been particularly adversely impacted.

Visitor income, through both ticket charges and commercial activities and events, is directly linked to public footfall and, by extension, popularity. Headlines accusing museums of “woke” attacks on British identity therefore have the potential to hit visitor numbers, particularly among older, whiter demographics – which for some parts of the heritage sector remains a large part of the audience.

While other institutions such as Historic England, major businesses like Greene King, and a number of councils and universities have produced similar research, the  National Trust’s particular membership model also offers an effective way for politicians to exert pressure upon the institution, with hysterical press coverage of attacks on emotive national icons intended to inspire large numbers of its 5.6 million members to complain and threaten to cancel subscriptions.

Reliance on government funding has been a leverage which the Conservatives have been keen to exploit. Last September, culture minister Oliver Dowden wrote to heritage institutions receiving grants threatening consequences if decisions on representation are not “consistent with the Government’s position” on national heritage. This followed his direct intervening with the Museum of the Home, pressing them to retain their statue of slave trader Robert Geffrye despite the broad desire among the local community to remove it.

The democratic control over and representation of local communities in their own public space is further targeted by a proposed law requiring planning permission for any removal or change of statues, memorials, and plaques. This law will allow any aggrieved resident or racist to object to changes in their local area and appeal directly to the minister, Robert Jenrick, who would have the power to potentially overturn decisions made by institutions, heritage organisations, or local councils. Conservative politicians at local and national level, meanwhile can grandstand on opportunistic and divisive cases and generate an ever-growing catalogue of new clickbait articles appealing to and solidifying their target voter groups.

1942 propaganda poster, Frank Newbould (Imperial War Museum).

So how will these political impacts play out practically in heritage spaces and institutions?

In my experience of conducting institutional reviews into sources of income related to enslavement and colonialism, the commissioning of reviews and consultations is often the product of drawn-out negotiation between stakeholders: leaders, administrators, donors, and staff, not to mention the relevant constituents, trustees, executives, alumni, students, investors, or other interested parties.  Each of these groups has the ability to generate pushback by opposing reviews and the implementation of reparatory projects that result from them. A government-sponsored atmosphere that derides this vital work is likely to encourage individuals and groups to resist both confronting their past and the vital addressing of the structural impacts of race and ethnicity.

Having worked with museums trusts and councils, one of the most direct challenges to decolonising heritage spaces and organisations I have observed is how tight budgeting and staffing resources are. In those institutions where there is a desire to work on generating and including diverse narratives, conducting new research, or re-assessing collections, regularly it falls upon the shoulders of individual staff members as additional work on top of their normal roles, often contingent on the time-consuming process of finding external funding for piecemeal community-engaging projects. While these projects remain ancillary, facilitating lasting and deep representation through providing broadened access to heritage careers and embedding decolonised practices and mindsets in day-to-day operations will struggle to occur.

Hanging over institutions now is the new threat that commissioning reparatory work could lead to further freezes or cuts in funding. Anecdotally professionals are now working in a new climate of second-guessing decisions on a whole range of operations, collections, curatorial, and outreach decisions. with genuine fears, both reputational and personal, of being singled out for government or media reprisal, with press and politicians directly naming and highlighting researchers, curators, and leaders as targets for public vilification. Where resolve remains high and government financial and political pressure low, practitioners are pushing on with decolonising agendas, such as the regional institutions facilitating repatriation of Benin Bronzes, in clear defiance of government directives to “retain and explain” contested artefacts.

One of the ‘Benin bronzes’ at Bristol Museum (Wikicommons).

What, therefore, does the future of heritage after Brexit look like?

The crystallisation of campaigns like Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter in the forefront of the public consciousness show that we are at a pivotal moment in both the national and global reckoning with our imperial past and its legacies of racialisation.

It is not just in the U.K. where right-wing politicians have played on long-standing economic grievances and anti-establishment rancour with increasingly authoritarian attacks on individual scholars as well as more broadly against pluralism, with emotive inflammation of fragilities and discomfort over issues of race, colonialism and identity. In the US, France, Portugal, Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere we see similar divisions over heritage and public history.

Although opinion polls on the subject can be slippery and frame questions in differing, sometimes opaque ways, they tend to show a plurality of either negative or ambivalent conceptions of the British Empire and a core of about one third of Britons with positive conceptions, correlating more with age and support for Leave and the Conservatives. Prior to the emotive and negative press framing 76% of people were found to be in favour of the National Trust’s approach to re-evaluation before the report’s publication.

The underpinning of a growing, although currently embattled, pluralistic attitude that seeks to understand better the imperial and racial aspects of our national past is, of course, decades of scholarship, curation, and communication. There are today more researchers working on more projects in this area, at more institutions than ever before, with a whole generation of idealistic and enthusiastic prospective historians and curators on their way.

Though solid groundwork has been laid, much, much more work remains to be done. If unchecked, the political attacks on heritage will create negative financial and institutional pressures that will stall or roll back the vital structural changes needed to decolonise our collections, institutions, and curricula.

It is essential to remember, however, that the visitors, audiences, members, customers, and constituents of the future will be more diverse in profile and more insistent upon seeing a pluralistic set of narratives about our heritage.

Those voices, at both a local and national level, as well as the energy and desire for change among activists, communities, and the next generation of scholars need to be embraced into daily and institutional practice by professionals to truly pluralise narratives, provide opportunities, and increase the resolution inside and outside the sector to counterbalance the forces of reaction and division.

Matthew Stallard is a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Legacies of British Slavery at UCL. His research focuses on recovering local, national, and transnational histories of class, race, identity, and lived experience. As a public historian he has worked with numerous museum trusts as a researcher, consultant and collaborator, completed institutional reviews for universities into financial legacies of enslavement and colonisation, and worked with over 100 family historians across 3 continents researching contemporary genetic genealogical practice.

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