Facing up to the past - Museums Association

Facing up to the past

Harewood House in Leeds is taking active steps to be more open about its colonial past, but more can be done, says Emily Zobel Marshall
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Dr Emily Zobel Marshall
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Harewood House is shining a light on its colonial past

Since the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020 and the subsequent global Black Lives Matter protests and calls for change, museums and galleries across the UK have been taking a long, interrogative look at their processes and practices and asking themselves if they can do better.

Can they recruit a greater number of staff from diverse backgrounds? Is their programming inclusive and accessible? Does their programming cater for the diverse communities in their cities and local areas? Is the narrative they are offering alongside their collections biased? Does that narrative continue some of the colonial perspectives and legacies that have traditionally shaped our historic and artistic institutions?    

The taste for interrogation, unfortunately, may be short-lived and go no further than tokenistic endeavours that help to tick the necessary boxes to quieten the calls for real change. British country houses, both private and those run by the National Trust, have also been under pressure to scrutinise their public narratives and internal practices.  

Schoolchildren visit Penrhyn Castle as part of the Colonial Countryside project Ingrid Pollard

The Colonial Countryside project, a child-focused writing and history project exploring the African, Caribbean and Indian connections at 11 National Trust properties, headed by Corinne Fowler at the University of Leicester, has been making great strides to creatively address and respond to the histories of colonialism and enslavement embedded in country houses across Britain.

As well as receiving widespread support, there has also been a public backlash over this important work, with Fowler finding herself getting abuse from the media and on social media by members of the public frightened that the project is dismantling nostalgic narratives of Britain’s “greatness” and pandering to the sensibilities of the so-called “woke” generation.  

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One stately home that has been actively interrogating its policies and collections is Harewood House in Yorkshire, near Leeds. Harewood House was built for Barbadian-born landowner Edwin Lascelles (1713-1795) and designed by architects John Carr and Robert Adam.

The wealth of the Lascelles family came from plantation slavery and the family were involved in every aspect of the trade. The Lascelles family sold their last Barbadian sugar cane plantation in 1970 and several Barbadians descended from the enslaved on these estates still carry the name Lascelles or Harewood.  

An open and inclusive future 

Over the past year, I have been working as a consultant and “critical friend” to the Harewood Trust to suggest revisions to its People and Place and Programming agenda and help it shape future plans to be more inclusive and better address its past. David Lascelles, the current Earl of Harewood, has always been open about his family’s connections to Caribbean slavery and he issued a statement after the murder of Floyd.

“We condemn racism in all its forms, we believe that Black lives matter and we commit to tackling how Harewood shares and confronts the past, and to question what that means for communities today,” it said. “Harewood cannot change its past, but we can use it as a stark unequivocal truth to build a fairer, equal future.” 

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In partnership with the Geraldine Connor Foundation, an arts-based charity funded by Harewood that focuses on supporting young people from diverse backgrounds to develop artistically, the Harewood Trust has created a programme of events to tell a more inclusive, accurate story about the house. Courtesy of historian Joe Williams, members of the public can now take a Black Heritage tour around the house and gardens and discover its connections to the Caribbean.  

Williams, the director of Heritage Corner, the organisation that helped set up and research the tours, says: “We aim to enhance positive engagement and discourse on race and social cohesion from a shared heritage perspective. Excluding shame and blame by intent, the aim is to inform and engender pride and hope for all visitors.” 

There is also a temporary exhibition (on until 22 October) telling the story of George “Bertie” Robinson, a footman at Harewood House from 1893-1922 and the only Black servant recorded as having served at Harewood. Bertie was brought to the house from St Vincent when he was 13 years old by the 5th countess and earl of Harewood while they were visiting their Caribbean plantations. He was sacked and told to leave the country after being caught stealing a £50 note from the earl.  

The fascinating tale of George ‘Bertie’ Robinson, the only recorded Black servant at Harewood House, is brought to life in an exhibition

Constance Wenlock Lascelles, the Earl of Harewood’s sister, wrote about the reason for Bertie’s theft in a letter dated 6th January, 1924: “He had gotten into trouble with a young lady, and there was a baby he ought to provide for!”  

Constance also wrote that even though Bertie was “unfairly put upon by the white servants” he had been “perfectly happy” at Harewood and had shown no desire to return to the Caribbean to one day “have a wife of his own species”.   

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Caribbean connections 

Recently, Bertie’s relatives have contacted the house, helping to solve the mystery of what happened to Bertie and offering new insights into his moving and fascinating story. Additionally, as part of the British Museum’s Where We Are programme, Harewood and the Geraldine Connor Foundation will be working on a joint project with young people of African and Caribbean ancestry entitled Harewood is my House. It aims to select a group of 10 young people and ask them to identify barriers to engagement and create a response that addresses a local need for engagement with the house.  

While these projects are both unique and clearly vital – and may allow Harewood to lead the way by example as a country house that does not hide its past – many of the planned projects at Harewood are temporary and more long-lasting change is also needed.

Permanent change often takes time, willingness and money. In my view, a visitor should not be able to leave Harewood without knowing its connections to enslavement and gaining insight into the brutal colonial history that lies beneath its splendour.  

Slavery research is still not a part of everyday interpretation at Harewood. This can only be done through changes to the permanent exhibition and the information boards across the house and gardens. Staff must also be well trained in the history of the place and feel confident enough to share its story with the public.

I dream that, one day, a sculptural memorial will be erected to the enslaved at the very front of the house, cementing this connection immediately in the minds of visitors and honouring the lives eroded and lost in the creation of the sumptuous building and grounds they see before them.   

This acknowledgment would not “spoil a good day out” for visitors, as feared by so many country houses. Instead, people from diverse backgrounds would see the history of their ancestors recognised and the wider public would be able to use the house as a resource to better understand the realities of their shared history and all its uncomfortable, often silenced, truths.  

In this way, the house, and others like it across the UK, could be used as a learning resource and demonstrate that real, radical and positive change to our British historical narrative is absolutely within reach. 

Dr Emily Zobel Marshall is a consultant to Harewood House and a reader in postcolonial literature at Leeds Beckett University 

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