Interpreting Country Estates: Somewhere between heritage and aesthetic

I outed myself at work this week when I declared that I actually don’t want any interpretation at a lot of the National Trust-style country estates. We were talking about places that have no other story than one family’s wealth and privilege. The new-ish trend has been for a few years now to explore the ‘downstairs’ (or the attic, where most of the servants quarters were). Another, more recent initiative is to explore slavery and colonialism, which is, let’s face it, at the heart of much of the wealth that produced these often outlandish places.

Both developments are laudable, and they certainly respond to what visitors want: the stories of ‘the common man’. For me, however, these stories merely distract from a more fundamental question about privilege and class, especially in a modern (British) society that still has a hereditary class.

It has prompted a bit of soul-searching for me, as I wondered what this actually means for interpretation. The first question that came up for me was:

 

Should interpretation challenge the current social status-quo?

Well, since I keep harping on about how utterly unacceptable it is to push onto visitors a ‘preferred reading’, the answer might look like an obvious no. And it is, as far as a confrontational myth-busting approach is concerned, as the word ‘challenge’ suggests. However, I think the current Downton Abbey-style stories of downstairs/upstairs life and‘how the servants lived’ are themselves a selection that excludes, for example, explorations of why servants’ lives were different from that of ‘the family’ to begin with. Would visitors be interested in that? Is that so glaringly obvious to them already that they don’t care? I don’t know. For me personally, I know a lot of the downstairs stories already (working at a site like that does that), and I am aware of the hereditary system in Britain (coming from a republic takes care of that), so it gets my back up big time to notice that there is no acknowledgement of that in the interpretation at all: it makes me feel like I’m being manipulated.

This then had me think about the expectations that many policies have of heritage and by extension of interpretation. So:

 

Should interpretation really not ‘be challenging’?

Well, no, but also, yes: it should challenge. It should challenge the master narrative of our societies if that narrative is to the detriment of some people. It’s a hard one, because museums and sites, and the people (interpreters) working there are all part of that master narrative. We can only be a reflection of the societies we’re part of. But if there is a will in that same society to change things, then I think interpretation is called upon to respond to that will, and bring it out in the open. I keep coming back here to the concept of facilitation: interpretation as facilitation can do that. It can facilitate the exploration of that social will, provide a space and an opportunity. It’s not about giving answers, or throwing down the gauntlet to a specific view. More and more, I come to think of this as providing facts: from all sides. It’s that opportunity, and ‘professional authority’of knowing all facts and giving a balanced view that visitors are looking for. It doesn’t have to be ‘in your face’. But visitors should feel that they are able to explore these aspects, that they are encouraged to do so.

Which brought me to the next question:

 

Does everything actually have a story?

The British National Trust Acts (first south, then north) both talk about aesthetic value and enjoyment. For the longest time I scorned this, and actually criticised the National Trust for providing next to no interpretation and relying merely on how pretty their places were. These days, I can quite cheerfully walk around a National Trust historic estate and revel in its beauty – it’s why I go there. I feel myself expand and be at peace. It’s only when you start telling me about ‘the family’ that my enjoyment plummets. It’s when this is presented to me as ‘heritage’ that everything inside me shouts: Who’s heritage? For me, this is probably an expression of a sense of unfinished business – it’s not quite heritage to me if the exclusion on which it is built continues today. That doesn’t mean that I think all National Trust places should be flattened. But as far as I’m concerned more often than not their value does indeed lie in their aesthetic and the enjoyment they provide, and not in their story. Especially not in their story.

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2 thoughts on “Interpreting Country Estates: Somewhere between heritage and aesthetic

  1. Really interesting. I completely agree about facilitation, it’s a crucial factor in interpretation of heritage in my opinion. Especially as it gives the opportunity to explore ‘the facts’ from all sides. I’m not sure the whole of the heritage sector sees this though which can be quite frustrating.

    Also, I completely agree about giving facts from all sides and having visitors really explore and make up their own mind (if they want to) about topics rather than giving pointed opinions as interpretation….

    I’m not really a fan of stately homes etc because they make me really angry, disconnected and that I am ‘the other’….in fact the only one I enjoyed was Knebworth and only because it was used in Batman!

    1. Hi Adam,

      I never managed to visit Knebworth – must do! Good point you make about ‘if visitors want to’ – at the end of the day, this is their visit, and they can do with it as they please. Just as I do: generally ignoring the interpretation at stately homes because more often than not it exasperates me.

      Thanks,
      Nicole

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