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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.

 

Notes

[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.

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