Simon Stephens, Issue 117/09, p4, 01.09.2017
Our heritage should be for everyone
I sometimes feel uncomfortable with the word “heritage”. One dictionary describes it as the “features belonging to the culture of a particular society, such as traditions, languages, or buildings, that were created in the past and still have historical importance”. The problem comes when there is a narrow view of how “our” heritage is defined.

Visits to historic houses often remind me of this. Of course the interpretation has to be linked to the particular history of the property in question but, even allowing for that, the stories told usually feel very monocultural. This is often compounded by a lack of diversity among staff, volunteers and visitors.

This is not to say that organisations such as English Heritage and the National Trust have not been making real efforts to develop the interpretation in their properties and to reach out to wider audiences. They have also assessed their recruitment policies. But the recent anger, much of it in the national press, directed at the National Trust’s Prejudice and Pride programme, which celebrates the LGBTQ histories associated with its properties, shows that we still have a long way to go as a society.

Having a group of volunteers at the trust’s Felbrigg Hall property who refused to wear a badge and lanyard featuring the Pride flag implies that many people still prefer the comfort of a narrow definition of heritage. They seem happy for their version of history to be interpreted and shared while rejecting the stories of others.

The problem with such views of heritage is that it does a disservice to all of us, including those who object to a more inclusive outlook. It leads to a partial and misleading view of history that excludes large numbers of people whose stories would add much to our national identity.

One of the keynote speakers at the Museums Association Conference in Manchester is David Olusoga, the historian, broadcaster and co-presenter of the forthcoming BBC Civilisations series.

His recent programme, Black and British: A Forgotten History, explored how black and white Britons have been intimately entwined for centuries. As Olusoga rightly points out, this story is all of ours, whatever our background. Telling it enriches us all, giving us a fuller and more rounded view of our shared heritage.