Inclusive histories | Responding to the ‘culture war’ through engagement and dialogue - Museums Association

Inclusive histories | Responding to the ‘culture war’ through engagement and dialogue

Corinne Fowler
Director, Colonial Countryside: National Trust Houses Reinterpreted, University of Leicester

I don’t know if you’ve ever walked to a National Trust property but it involves soggy fields and some alarming fast roads. I discovered this whilst preparing a report on National Trust houses’ historic connections to slavery and British colonial rule.

The Trust commissioned me to produce an audit of published and peer- reviewed academic research and the result was a report called ‘The Connections Between Colonialism and the Properties now in the Care of the National Trust.’

However, publishing the report, in 2020, felt like a walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I found myself in the middle of a major news story. The report was condemned by Cabinet Members and 59 Common Sense Group MPs and Peers, who turned the spotlight on me and my team of historians.

We found ourselves being presented by influential opinion writers as unpatriotic denigrators of British history. My safety was threatened, I could not walk alone and I had to call the police.

The most inflammatory news articles prompted an avalanche of hate mail – letters and emails – full of threats and accusations. But I answered my hate mail. Once people overcame their surprise at receiving a polite reply, they told me what had upset them. I could nearly always tell which newspaper article they had read and I would explain what the history was and share the evidence with them.

Almost always, after two or three exchanges, each person would wish me well. Then I felt sad because these culture wars are so unnecessary and so divisive. History should never be weaponised and we don’t need to push each other off a cliff.

This year-long ordeal provided an unexpected masterclass in responding to culture wars. The first rule is not to engage in a war, but in a conversation. Culture wars are waged cynically for click-bait, profit or political gain.

Having said this – and crucially – many of the people who join the fray are unaware that they are contaminating our public conversation. Adding to the toxicity is not the answer – doing so only empowers the wagers of culture wars and unconsciously furthers their cynical ends. In fact, war metaphors should probably be ditched altogether.

The writers of those letters and emails showed me many things. I learned that even people who are openly hostile can be called in. There is a big difference between calling in and calling out. Calling people out triggers feelings of shame and defensiveness which entrench difference and deepen divisions.

Calling people in acknowledges somebody’s starting point, encourages calmer conversations and potentially provides pathways to more open, evidence-based thinking. After all, changing an opinion is a big ask for all of us. It is a genuine challenge.

Colonial history was relatively unfamiliar to the people who wrote these letters and emails to me. Like me, they had learned very little at school about the Royal African Company, the East India Company and even the British slavery system. To them, it felt as though the National Trust report had almost made up the colonial history of its places.

It contradicted decades of established views about country houses and British heritage sites. I reflected that it had taken me years of study to know what I know now. This knowledge was not something to brandish but a public resource.

I set about modelling better ways of having these conversations, including in a free online course called Country Houses and the British Empire, which takes two very different people through the colonial history of stately homes in conversation with each other and with experts in the field.

I recently went on the Precipice Walk in North Wales and found it an irresistible metaphor for deepening our knowledge of British colonial history. The way can feel fraught with fear and danger. But sensitivity, emotional intelligence and historical evidence can illuminate the path and from there we can gain panoramic views, a more expansive and inclusive view of our colonial past and our postcolonial present.

Inclusive Histories

Narrating our shared past in polarised times

This commentary is an extract from a new report by British Future – ‘Inclusive Histories: Narrating our shared past in polarised times’.

Read the full report