Q&A | ‘We need to defend the freedom to research our histories in all their nuance’ - Museums Association

Q&A | ‘We need to defend the freedom to research our histories in all their nuance’

Corinne Fowler on what it’s like to find yourself on the front line of a political culture war
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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Corinne Fowler
Corinne Fowler Osbourne Photography

Over the past few months, Corinne Fowler, professor of postcolonial literature at the University of Leicester, has been singled out for criticism by senior government figures and the press following the publication of a landmark report on links to slavery and colonialism at National Trust properties, which she co-authored.

Fowler spoke to Museums Journal about the impact of the backlash, the chilling effect that the so-called culture war is having on academic independence – and how the heritage sector should respond.

Can you describe your experience of the heated backlash that followed the publication of the National Trust report?

The initial response to the National Trust report was largely positive. However, 56 Conservative MPs known as the Common Sense Group declared a “culture war” and Jacob Rees Mogg gave a speech in Parliament, saying that, by including Churchill’s house Chartwell, the report denigrated Churchill (the report notes colonial administrators, and so mentions that Churchill was colonial secretary and voted against Indian Independence).

Following this, the Telegraph reported that the Charity Commission might investigate the National Trust on the grounds that the report was outside the trust’s charitable remit, though the founding National Trust Act of 1907 clause 4.2 states that the Trust “may acquire property…for purposes of public recreation, resort or instruction”. Hilary McGrady also tweeted “if it is wrong to [research our properties], then the National Trust has been doing the wrong thing for 125 years”.

Parliamentarians then called two debates in Parliamentary Hall and the House of Lords to debate the future of the National Trust (November) and the trust’s 125th anniversary (December), where the report was debated extensively. Following this, Simon Heffer, Charles Moore and other columnists wrote articles which questioned the “intellectual heft” of the report’s editors – naming and criticising each author but the sole male author – and saying it was “one-sided” and “woke”.

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From here, the attack became more narrowly focused on myself as the only academic report editor and my research project, Colonial Countryside: National Trust Houses Reinterpreted, which is guided by a team of historians. The Daily Mail, The Times and the Spectator accused us of being “politically partial academics”.

Following this, there was a series of attacks on my book, with misreporting of my work – a false claim that I wrote in my book that “gardening is racist”, another misleading claim that the National Trust report was “error strewn” and a further false report today that I compared British colonialism to the Japanese treatment of prisoners of war (all in the Daily Mail).

The majority of these articles gave me no right of reply, and none to any of the Colonial Countryside historians mentioned in the news reports. Finally, government ministers and other senior politicians briefed against the work. The group wrote open letters against the National Trust report and then wrote to my funders and said that Colonial Countryside was ineligible for public funds because it is a “political project”.

The Sunday Telegraph reported that “further bids for public money to cover the cost of the Colonial Countryside project would be turned down”.

The Mail also falsely claimed I feel “intimidated by” senior politicians, and in response House of Lords member Peter Lilley said: “If anyone has intimidated or abused professor Fowler, as she claims, I would leap to her defence. But to imply that the Common Sense Group has done so is absurd. We simply criticised her ideas.”

I have rarely been given chance to respond to these articles, though the Telegraph did allow me to publish a piece.

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Why do you think this issue has become such a political football?

We are at a very sensitive moment nationally. We are in the middle of a pandemic and the summer’s Black Lives Matter protesters tried to open up a conversation about our past and how we commemorate it. The choice we then had as a nation was to open up that conversation across cultures, generations and political divides.

It could have been an opportunity to collectively learn more about our four centuries of colonial activity and understand its legacies to us today. Alternatively, we could have panicked, argued about it and shut down the conversation in the name of free speech, which is what happened. For the sake of future generations, I feel sorry that history has been weaponised in this way.

Are you concerned that this discourse is having a chilling effect on editorial and academic freedom?

We should all be concerned about attempts to sanitise our national history – in the name of not sanitising it – and to call for less history, not more history. We should be worried when an organisation which did not previously much discuss its houses’ colonial links, even those which were central to their histories, tries to incorporate this historical information for the interest of heritage visitors but then gets called “one-sided” and “woke” for its efforts to provide the fullest possible histories of the places in its care.

We should be worried when MPs call our work “political” and try to cancel our projects, or, more likely, scare us away from new ones, in the name of quashing “cancel culture”. I have received hundreds of threats as a result of misreporting on my work. There have been at least 135 media articles about my work calling me such things as “halfwit” and attempting to discredit me. Today it happens to me, tomorrow it happens to you.

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We need to defend the freedom to research our histories in all their nuance, being careful not to confuse nationalism with historical evidence. We need to hold the line: timidity only encourages hostile coverage, presumably in the hope of pressuring organisations to cancel more projects along the same lines.

What can the heritage sector do to calm the debate and counter the narrative that this kind of work is “rewriting history”?

First of all, we need to accept that every single person who engages with this topic undergoes a journey of discovery. Not one of us is there yet and all conversations about the topic should be respectful of that. I personally have been on a very long journey to understand quite how much we have forgotten about those 400 years of colonial rule and its legacy to us.

Our education system does little to help. We are familiar with the Battle of Hastings, kings and queens and the first and second world wars, but we are far less familiar with the facts and complexities of empire. Education is a starting point, and museums and the heritage sector can play a role here. But I also think that this should be done humbly, recognising that we all undertake this work and learn new things collectively, alongside everybody else who visits heritage sites.

Visitors’ local knowledge can be invaluable and colonial history is most resonant when regions’ unique colonial histories surface. Finally, we should not be afraid. Change is never easy. It takes courage. Without courage the status quo remains.

Organisations have to have their employees’ backs and everyone has to consciously commit to learning how to communicate more inclusively and more meaningfully to the widest possible group of potential visitors. There are strong connections, for example, between poverty in Britain and Ireland and colonial rule. These avenues would allow exciting and unfamiliar histories to emerge.

What would you like to see come out of the summit between the government and heritage bodies next week?

I would like to see a calming down of the rhetoric and posturing so that respectful and thoughtful conversations can take place. There is no need to present heritage professionals as unpatriotic for telling the truth, either. We need to avoid this “culture war” mentality and history should not be used for political gain.

I worry, because the government has appropriated the very language that we as historians have used to defend ourselves from fierce governmental and media attack: free speech champions are now to defend “academic freedom”, people who uphold the principle of equality are now “thought police” or “woke warriors”, those who highlight new historical evidence are accused of “sanitising history”, yet Oliver Dowden stipulates that we must not “do Britain down” (or there will be consequences).

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