Issue 112/04, p22-23, 01.04.2012
The ‘national story’ is far from the only one
In a world of rapidly diminishing resources, the news about Heritage Schools certainly looks welcome. OK, it’s not a lot of money but every little helps as they say.
For someone like me, working in a World Heritage Site, it certainly looks appealing; giving children a chance to understand their local heritage and how it relates to the national story or, for sites such as ours, an international story as well. The stated aims of heritage schools have considerable synergies with museums and heritage organisations.
Nevertheless we have to confront the re-emergence of rather an old phrase: ‘the national story’. After years of social and cultural historians promoting “history from below” and striving to ensure that different voices are heard apart from “great dead white men” I have to admit that when I hear “the national story”, I reach for the cynics handbook...or a Ladybird book.
Maurice Davies, the head of policy and communication at the Museums Association, raised this concern in his recent blog, worrying that the national story would be a return to an insular, flag–waving narrative of British virtue and martial victory.
Given that there has been so much debate over Britishness and what it means to people, let’s hope that English Heritage accepts a wildly diverse view of a national story, one that comprises hundreds of different strands.
For example, children of northern towns need to know why Asian workers came to their mills in the 20th century just as much as kids in Surrey need to know what the Diggers were up to on St George’s Hill in the 1640s.
In addition, our national story is an international one that resounds today, thanks to the lines we arbitrarily drew on maps in the Middle East, Asia and Africa years ago.
Let’s hope that this scheme will recognise that. After all, giving different perspectives is something that English Heritage does well, from the audio tour of the Battle of Hastings to the prison cells for conscientious objectors in Richmond Castle. They know that the great thing about history is that it is gloriously messy and there isn’t one story.
Mark Suggitt, director, Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, Derbyshire
Shoot the messenger
I’m a regular visitor to museums, art galleries and other exhibitions. I’m also an “amateur” visitor, in that I have no professional interest, nor any relevant academic background. I just have a passion for museums.
I’m not sure how this happened – my working class family had no interest, and school trips invariably bored me as much as anyone else. I developed the interest at university, when I had the freedom and opportunity to investigate these things for myself.
Perhaps this experience is familiar to all your readers. So I have been wondering for some time about the potentially negative effects of guides, whether real or audio.
I’m assuming none of your readers would use them: Why is this? While we’re probably all familiar with feeling a certain snobbish sensation in a crowd of people who seems to have been turned into passive guided zombies, I think this is deeper than hauteur.
I feel guides limit my direct experience of the work, which can nonetheless be fruitfully facilitated by the programme or the accompanying labels, at my own leisure.
Is there any evidence to suggest guided tours encourage visitors to return and experience the works directly? And if not, can we discard these pointless and distracting attempts at improving access?
Alun Howard, London
To whose benefit?
In response to the your article on overseas tourist visitors to UK museums, might I suggest that the beginnings of an upsurge in visitors from Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) countries and similar emerging economies is more evidence that the time is approaching for a rethink on free entry to national museums?
The article points out that most of these visitors stick to a well-trodden predetermined route through the big London-based nationals, which suggests that they would be very unlikely to be put off by reasonable entrance fees.
The BRIC economies are mostly emerging as extremely polarised societies where the very rich are jaw droppingly rich and pay for everything privately and the poor are still crushingly poor with little support along the lines of social security benefits or health services. I doubt that many of the poor from these countries will be visiting our shores in the foreseeable future.
Consequently, why should taxpayers here subsidise the holiday activities of the rich from the BRIC countries through paying for free entry to museums? In addition, why should the nationals continue to receive the lion’s share of support to museums that our taxpayers can afford if they have the opportunity to gain from these expanding markets while small and medium museums in the regions have little chance of breaking into them?
Erik Blakeley, Dorset
The national question
The Duke of Sutherland is awfully rich. And now he’s even wealthier thanks to the £95m of largely public funds that were used to pay for two of his Titian paintings.
These paintings were produced in the 16th century by an Italian artist for a Spanish king.
It’s amusing to think that they have now been “saved for the nation”. But shouldn’t this be “saved for the state”? What happens if Scotland votes for independence? Will the two “nations” get one each? And when will all this nonsense end about saving things for nations? How many paintings would remain in the National Gallery if everything had stayed in its home nation?
Stuart Burch, senior lecturer in museum and heritage management, Nottingham Trent University
There must be some middle ground between desperate patriotic appeals to save a painting and self-aggrandising purchases.
The museum sector, surely, is capable of coming to an agreed view of what is a part of “our common heritage” as a rag bag of peoples living on an archipelago in the north-west atlantic, and what is just a material possession, which during its existence made its way from pillar to post and at some time or other happened to land on these shores.
What is interesting is that it is only “art” that has to be saved (according to the media). Almost all other collections appear to either not require rescuing or just succumb unloved and ignored (apart from famous author’s archives and ex-Beatles’ homes).
Jonathan, access and interpretation officer, Wrexham County Borough Museum (from the MA website)
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