Posts Tagged ‘polyvocality’

On 11th November 2020, there was a short debate in the UK House of Commons on the future of the National Trust in England and Wales. It is worth analysing in particular the contributions of the debate’s initiator. They make for a textbook lesson on history vs. heritage, the power structures of hegemonies, and why professional heritage interpretation needs to be based in polyvocality where applicable.

Dr Andrew Murrison complains that a Trust report on the connections between the Trust’s properties in care, and colonialism and historic slavery ‘diminishes towering figures in British history, notably Winston Churchill…a man who, more than any other, stood against fascism, racism and antisemitism’.

Dr Murrison does not challenge the facts presented in the report about Winston Churchill [1]. His critique, implied but not made explicit, is that these facts are given importance. To him, the facts that should be stressed are presumeably that Churchill fought and won against Nazi Germany – thus his reference above to what Churchill, in his eyes, stands for. This is a selective focus and emphasis: Dr Murrison stresses some historical facts, while he mutes others. The facts that he gives importance to convey a meaning and a narrative, namely, about what Britain stands for, and therefore about what it means to be British. We call this heritage values.

The above illustrates a key element of the definition of heritage: it is selective, it tells a story about identity/identities, and it is consequently emotionally charged. Dr Murrison’s statements also highlight that heritage is not history. It is not an attack on history that he objects to (i.e. the facts); rather, it is what he perceives as an attack on his heritage (i.e. the valuing of certain facts), although again, he does not make that clear (and I’m arguing below that this is a function of hegemony).

Dr Murrison criticises that in his view, the facts in the report, i.e. those that challenge his heritage values, are not given sufficient context. This might at first glance be mistaken as the call for polyvocality. It isn’t. Instead, it is an example of hegemonic power structures at work.

Dr Murrison actually dismisses the giving of context on site as unnecessary. At length he argues that at country houses, the ‘inequality’ on which they were built (note the euphemistic choice of word here) ‘is there and it is in your face’. To point it out, he suggests, is to ‘force-feed’ visitors. He says, ‘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.’

This phrase in particular is very informative. Dr Murrison does not acknowledge, even in words, the true source of this wealth – slavery, colonialism, with all the pain these exploitative structures caused. In his sentence, he not only obscures what might otherwise be a true challenge to his heritage values, i.e. his positive narrative of what Britain stands for, but he dismisses it completely through flippancy (‘a post office savings account’).

Dr Murrison goes even further than this. He suggests that at country houses and other Trust properties, no interpretation of history is required at all. Again, it is instructive to note that he arrives at this conclusion through reference to his own experience only, assuming that most other people’s will be the same. He states that the purpose of visiting a National Trust property is ‘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’.

Dr Murrison is full of praise for a 2013 English Heritage report on Slavery and the British Country House. So let us turn to that report in the attempt to understand Dr Murrison’s statement better. The report notes that, ‘The British country house, that symbol of refinement, connoisseurship and civility, has long been regarded not only as the jewel in the nation’s heritage crown, but as an iconic signifier of national identity’ (p. 13). That, then, is the value widely associated with country houses such as the National Trust care for: they are a representation of a national identity that sees Britishness as being refined, being civil, and being connoisseurs. Without additional interpretation, that is what a country house stands for. They are their own interpretation.  

I do not know if this is in fact the heritage value that Dr Murrison shares – he does not make his values transparent except for objecting to interpretation based on the Trust’s report (and movements such as Black Lives Matter). However, since the above is the hegemonic value, the issue as stated remains. Consequently, to suggest that no further interpretation needs to be offered is to defend the status quo.  

That is of course the aim of all hegemonies: to preserve themselves, by dismissing, suppressing and keeping invisible the values of others. But it cannot be the aim of professional heritage interpretation. Nor is it in the interest of the cohesion of increasingly diverse societies.

What must happen instead is precisely what the National Trust has done: we need to collect all historical facts, even where they are inconvenient to the hegemonic heritage values. And we need to engage with relevant heritage communities who contest these values in order to understand theirs. And then we must push to have these values acknowledged and represented also.

Crucially, this is not just so that currently margenialised views can be appeased, as Dr Murrison implies. Rather, it is an intrinsic part of a pluralist democracy and its ongoing agonistic struggle. It makes possible the renegotiation of heritage, and the creation of new heritages as diverse societies come together as one.

At the end of such a process, we may well arrive where Dr Murrison claims to be today: at a glorious state of shared and equal reclaiming of the places that were built on inhuman exploitation and pain suffered. Perhaps these country houses will then no longer stand for an idealised vision of a wealthy and civilised Britain full of beauty and art. Instead, they may represent a nation’s courageous and just struggle toward reconciliation over a shared past that for some was brutal.

Personally, I think that’s the better Britain.  


[1] The report notes that Churchill was Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1921 to 1922; that he was PM during the Bengal Famine of 1943 for which Britain has been heavily criticised; and that he opposed the Government of India Act in 1935 and Indian independence in 1947, which ended three hundred years (!) of colonial rule (p. 55 of the report).

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