The National Trust Must Update its Idea of What Makes History and Speak in Multiple VoicesRoundup
tags: historic preservation, British history, public history, National Trust
Neil MacGregor is a former director of the British Museum and a founding director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. This essay draws on his Octavia Hill lecture for the National Trust
During the past 10 or 15 years statues stopped being unremarked pieces of urban furniture. People noticed that they mean something — and what they mean now matters. It’s a global phenomenon: strident, energising debates about who tells history — and which history — are in the public realm. Passions run high, nuance runs out and the visual symbols of the different narratives, usually statues, are in the front line.
There, as we have seen all around the world in the past few years, statues have been attacked and relocated, daubed and decapitated. In June 2020, in Bristol, the drowning in effigy of Edward Colston the “philanthropic slave-trader” held the world spellbound. Street names everywhere have had an equally rough time. Last December in Berlin, for example, streets commemorating German colonialists in the Afrikanisches Viertel were renamed after African anti-colonial resistants.
In every case, the charge is that these statues and street names tell the story of only one, privileged, part of the population. They divide. Re-describing or removing them is not, in this view, denying the past, but declaring that this version of the past is unbalanced, actively corrosive of the national community as we now conceive it. For many indigenous Americans, Columbus cannot be unequivocally celebrated, any more than Aboriginal Australians or Māori can unreservedly honour Captain James Cook, or the descendants of enslaved Africans revere Confederate generals.
In Britain, this global phenomenon has taken a particular, local turn, because of a unique institution: here, it is not just statues that have been under attack, but the prime public custodian of our history, the National Trust. And the battles have been fought not in the public square, but in election campaigns for seats on the trust’s council, and in vigorous polemics about the interpretation offered to visitors real and virtual.
Founded in 1895, and given statutory powers and responsibilities by an Act of Parliament in 1907, the trust (now supported by more than 5mn members and tens of thousands of volunteers) holds “for the benefit of the nation” hundreds of sites of historic interest and natural beauty across the whole country. But to preserve and present sites of historic interest has always meant taking a view of both the history concerned, and the nation imagined.