Us and Them at Hughenden Manor

A couple of weekends ago, I visited Hughenden Manor, managed by the National Trust.  I joined a guided tour on World War II, when the house had served as a base for map makers. The tour guide, a lovely and otherwise very welcoming lady, kept using ‘we’ as she spoke about Hughenden’s history during the war.  ‘We’ used this place.  ‘We’ made maps here.  ‘We’ photographed the maps.

At first I was merely puzzled. Did ‘we’, the National Trust, photograph the maps?  Did ‘we’, a collective of which I, as a visitor, was a part, use this place?  Of course, by the time the tour guide said ‘We bombed Hitler’s Eagles Nest’ I realised that ‘we’ meant ‘the British’.  And as the tour progressed, this group identity became even more pronounced.

I wasn’t the only non-British person in the group.  There was the French friend I was with, as well as a couple from the Netherlands and a few Americans, as far as I could tell.  I couldn’t help but wonder whether the guide and the National Trust as the organisation whom she represented had really thought through this use of language. The message sent to us non-British seemed clear: this wasn’t our past.  Our place in this narrative was as spectators, and judging from the proud and emphatic tone employed, we were supposed to be admiring spectators.

My own role was of course more complex than that.  I am German, so even in a non-philosophical way (I would argue that one country’s past is almost always also another country’s past, especially if you’re talking about a World War) the past that was represented was indeed partially my past.  But the language used left no room for my own engagement with that past.  I was to share in the celebration of the maps’ accuracy in enabling pilots to bomb German towns, dismissing the ‘few civilian casualties’ [1].  What is more, as the tour progressed, I noticed myself becoming self-conscious about being German.  I wondered what the guide’s, and the group’s, reaction would be if they ‘found out’.

Is this really how the tour guide, and the National Trust, wanted to make me feel?  I dare say the answer is no.  To me, this points to a few things.  It is not enough to devise a guided tour that shares facts in an engaging and fun way.  Evaluated on these criteria, the tour would score as outstanding.  But what we need to consider is visitors’ own engagement with a topic.  Do we allow them to contribute, to share?  Are we making it possible for them to look at something from a different point of view, while still respecting the one that they arrived with?  Are we providing a welcoming and safe place for everyone?  Are we inclusive?  Judged on these criteria, I’m afraid the tour at Hughenden Manor wasn’t very successful.



[1] I don’t think it’s necessary here to go into a discussion about the war.  It is needless to say that I acknowledge the harm that Germany did to many countries and people, Britain included.  But as someone who has interpreted war for the better part of her professional career, I feel keenly the importance of bringing sensitivity to war interpretation, no matter how long ago things happened, or who we think was the aggressor.

5 thoughts on “Us and Them at Hughenden Manor

  1. Thanks for this very interesting comment, I could say that I have found things somewhat similar when touring 2nd WW sites and dealing with wartime issues in Germany, a lot depends on the social and education background and the age group concerned. Hearing the harrowing stories of life of German prisoners in Siberia and families whose loved ones and relatives who were removed. Being told the stories first hand is always an eye opening experience.
    How to engage with colleagues about the issues in the most appropriate way is always a challenge.
    I most recently, in attending a conference in Berlin, was confronted by an attitude that I found quite shocking. I was discussing a 2nd WW project that we are running in the New Forest National Park, many detailed technical aspects of the work and of course dealing with oral accounts from elderly people involved in wartime activities.
    The students concerned, in their early twenties had been discussing issues about the 2nd WW in their department coffee room, nothing controversial from my understanding. The next day someone anonymously had posted a notice that the subject was not to be discussed in the coffee room in future; as it was an inappropriate topic! This is of course the opposite end of the spectrum from those of my German friends who are well aware of British humour about such matters from our TV comedy programmes.
    Curiously this month I found I was able to purchase for a few Euros a wide range of 2nd WW material in DVD form in the local supermarket in north Germany, including original Luftwaffe footage, much material only in German. I also discovered the groups that exist like ours that study different aspects of wartime technology.

    Frank Green

    1. Hello Frank,

      Thank you for your comment. Is there any information online about the New Forest Wartime Project? I’d be very interested in finding out more details about what you do there.

      I think hearing eyewitness accounts is different yet again, although even then the interpretation must – where needed – facilitate engagement by those who may have some shared characteristics with the original perpetrators, such as nationality. Incidentally, the interviews with the map makers that they showed at Hughenden were much more sensitive; I remember one person saying how it pained them to think about the human casualties, but how this was war and this is simply what needed to be done. I felt their anguish, and the pain that war inflicts on everyone. That, to me, was successful war interpretation, but it really hinged on the interviewee’s own sensitivity. If interpretation of war creates new barriers and new divisions between people, then I’d rather see it not done at all.

      (What an odd comment this anonymous person made there; I’d be interested in knowing who they were, and what motivated them. Were the students German? British?)


      1. Hi, the comment in the Berlin University coffee room was from a German older member of staff about the German students discussion, they worked this out by a process of elimination!

        I do very much agree with what you say. In my own family one of my mother’s cousins married a young German of Jewish origin after the war, her husband taught German. She was the only survivor of her family the rest I understand perished in one of the concentration camps. Again a direct perspective allows careful questioning. Many of my German friends involved in the war period are sadly now dead though I was first able to discuss such matters with these friends over 40 years ago when I was in my teens!

        Our 2nd WW project is being managed by James Brown (xxx) here and Gareth Owen (xxx) is managing the Oral History component. Probably best to contact them directly for up-to date project information.


        Frank Green BA MPhil MSc MIfA IHBC

  2. Hi Nicole, as always you bring sensitivity and good sense to everything you see and experience. As someone who is just about to get involved in a war time project, your thoughts and words are very helpful. Jacquie Barbour.

    1. Hi Jacquie,

      Thanks, glad to hear it may help you in your project. I would love to hear more about it as it progresses. My PhD uses two battlefield case studies – final approval pending – and this aspect of how conflict is represented, and what impact this has on visitors, is something I’m really interested in there. I think interpretation of war is also about achieving understanding, so “us” and “them” just doesn’t work for me.

      Good luck with the project!

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