Profile | 'We must be careful not to unconsciously add to the toxicity' - Museums Association

Profile | ‘We must be careful not to unconsciously add to the toxicity’

Corinne Fowler on the need to be humane and sensitive when dealing with the National Trust’s colonial histories
Corinne Fowler at Charlecote Park in Warwickshire, one of the many National Trust properties with colonial history in the process of being researched and interpreted
Corinne Fowler at Charlecote Park in Warwickshire, one of the many National Trust properties with colonial history in the process of being researched and interpreted Photo by Philip Sayer

“We found that nearly a third of the 300 or so National Trust properties were connected to often multiple types of colonial activity,” says Corinne Fowler, professor of colonialism and heritage in the museum studies department at the University of Leicester, who worked on an audit of the trust’s properties as part of a collaborative project called Colonial Countryside. 

The resulting report, published in 2020, was not welcomed by everyone, including those who were annoyed by the fact that Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s home, as well as the former prime minister himself, were found to have had ties with colonialism. Oliver Dowden, the former culture secretary who has played a key role in the “culture wars”, was a staunch critic of the report and helped trigger a Charity Commission investigation into whether the trust breached charity law. This was found not be the case.

The National Trust was accused of wokeism and jumping on the bandwagon in the wake of Black Lives Matter. But it was simply an audit of existing, published, peer-reviewed academic research into National Trust properties’ connection to colonialism, including historic slavery.

Nonetheless, Fowler received death threats and vast volumes of hate mail in response to tabloid articles smearing the report and its findings, as did Hilary McGrady, the director-general of the National Trust.

“But I also received massive support from the Museums Association, Royal Historical Society and many other major historical societies, the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership Centre and from universities at home and abroad,” says Fowler, who met the challenge with courage and dignity.

She contributed to the parliamentary reading of the online security bill, ending her statement with: “I hope that my case will provide valuable evidence to persuade the committee that no newspaper should knowingly give a platform to hate speech that incites murder and violence against anyone, no matter what the news story.

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I know that reader hate speech would deeply hurt and concern any member of the committee should it be directed at their own loved ones, and I would never wish any fellow creature to endure it.”

The report itself actually only scratched the surface. “The figure of 93 properties having colonial links is just from the ones where the research has already been done and peer reviewed,” says Fowler. “So, there may be many more connections, because there are lots of archives that haven’t even been looked at. That’s just what we found – and it’s a significant proportion.” 

Corinne Fowler

Corinne Fowler is professor of colonialism and heritage in the museum studies department at the University of Leicester.

After doing an MA in colonial and postcolonial studies at Leeds University, she completed a PhD in the history of British ideas about Afghanistan, 1842-present, before becoming a postdoctoral researcher on the Moving Manchester project about immigration and literature from 1960-present.

She went on to become a lecturer and then senior lecturer in postcolonial literature at the University of Leicester, before moving to the museum studies department.

Fowler directed the Colonial Countryside: National Trust Houses Reinterpreted project, and in 2020 co-authored an audit of peer-reviewed research about National Trust properties’ connections to empire, which won this year’s Museums and Heritage Special Recognition Award.

Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England, the Colonial Countryside: National Trust Houses Reinterpreted project, and its resulting report, has helped the National Trust bring colonial histories to light. The project’s other branch has been a child-led history and writing project, which started in 2018 and worked with 100 primary pupils, 16 historians and 10 writers.

“Primary pupils gave guided tours and co-produced exhibitions. There’s one on now called What a World at Penrhyn Castle, in Bangor, which is about slavery history and that property’s Jamaican connection,” says Fowler. “The children also spoke with me at conferences and had their own children’s conference. And they rewrote one guidebook for children.” 

Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd, one of the National Trust properties that was part of the Colonial Countryside project and report National Trust

Eleven trust properties with colonial histories engaged with children, who were part of the Colonial Countryside project. They produced new interpretation incorporating those histories in displays for visitors.

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“With a few exceptions, most National Trust properties were not telling colonial stories, even when they were central to their history,” says Fowler. “Lots were avoiding their history – Basildon Park near Reading and Speke Hall in Liverpool, for example.” 

The Tudor house of Speke Hall was bought by a Lancastrian slave trader, Richard Watt (1724-96), in 1795.

“He was involved in every aspect of the slavery business possible, from slave trading itself to owning plantations and managing plantations owned by others, to selling enslaved people to other plantation owners.” 

The trust’s website says: “Watt made his fortune from almost every brutal aspect of the transatlantic slave trade. He owned sugar, rum and tropical hardwood plantations, ran factorages, trafficked enslaved Africans and invested in slave-trading voyages.

With the profits, Watt bought three estates in England, including Speke Hall, purchased just a year before his death. In addition to these estates, and a reported £500,000 fortune, Watt’s great nephew, Richard III, inherited his enslaved people – and their future children – through a system known as ‘descent-based’ slavery.” 

Understanding the facts

Fowler cites Charlecote Park in Warwickshire as another property with a colonial history. “There is a painting from 1680 of Thomas Lucy with a black page boy wearing a metal collar, which led some local Black history groups to look at the parish records,” she says. “They found the names of many African servants listed as working in houses in the Warwickshire area. It’s these sorts of items and collections that open up a whole regional history of African and, sometimes, Indian presence.” 

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Before the report was published, all the evidence that Fowler and senior curators within the trust collected was shown to the organisation’s senior management.

“They were not altogether surprised, and recognised the significance of the findings when you put all this information in a single place,” she says. “They decided it was an important part of their duty to incorporate this history into National Trust  properties.” 

Given the wide-ranging nature of the report, the trust couldn’t act on all its findings straight away. But how long will it be until these stories have a public presence in those 93 properties? 

“These things take a long time,” says Fowler. “They require additional research. That’s not quick. Especially when you’re prioritising research rigour which, of course, is absolutely crucial in a history that is more open to challenges than almost any other type of history. It takes a while to make sure that all staff feel confident and knowledgeable about that history.
So, there’s a training implication as well as research time. You also have to sift through collections to see what relevant items you may or may not have. And you have to think about how to tell these stories in respectful and sensitive ways. So, it’s not something you can just change overnight.” 

The process has been set in motion, even if it does end up taking a few years to achieve something visible across the trust properties involved.

“British colonial history is sensitive,” says Fowler. “The report represented a watershed moment for the heritage and museum sectors, and raised important questions about which histories have traditionally been told and how they are approached. Ultimately, curators have a responsibility to address the relevant colonial histories of their places and collections, and to meet the challenge with courage and respect.”  

Spreading the word

Fowler is now back in her role as professor, teaching colonialism and heritage as part of the museum studies course at the University of Leicester, but over the past year – as a calmer advance of the Colonial Countryside project – she has been on sabbatical to work on her new book, The Countryside, Ten Walks Through Colonial Britain. Due to be published in 2023, her book forms the basis of a session at this year’s Museums Association conference.

“I will have my fellow walkers with me in the conference session,” says Fowler, who has walked through 10 areas of Britain to explore each region’s unique colonial history. “I’ve done the walks with people who have ancestral connections to empire, and to whom the landscape means a lot.” 

Activist Graham Campbell on a walk on the Isle of Islay with Corinne Fowler as research for her book Photo by Corinne Fowler

Fowler’s walks focus on: the Scottish Isle of Jura (links with Jamaica); Grasmere in the Lake District (Canton); Whitehaven in Cumbria (Virginia); Darwen in Lancashire (the cotton history of the Mississippi and India); Dolgellau in Wales (the Americas); the Cotswolds (Bengal); Norfolk (the West Indies); Hampshire (Louisiana); Tolpuddle in Dorset (Australia and Barbados); and Cornwall (the Americas).  

“I’ve looked at the history of cotton, the history of copper and the history of iron for this book,” she says. “It’s important to mention that historians of colonialism feel strongly that we shouldn’t talk about the history of empires so much as working-class history. My book explores precisely how those histories are intertwined. There’s so much to be done generally about the interconnections between labour history and colonial history. And that’s what I’m trying to bring out in these walks through the countryside.

“Each area has a unique set of connections to the British empire – in Cornwall it’s copper, in Wales it’s wool – that is strongly connected to plantation history. These things are not obvious.” 

Fowler – who published Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England’s Colonial Connections last year – hopes her book will bring the issue of rural racism to the fore.

“It’s about who feels welcome in the countryside and what individual people’s connections are with particular regions, and to have sensitive and humane conversations about what that history means at a personal level.” 

Something that keeps on coming to light is that colonial histories are delicate ones to impart, but telling them can also upset many common perceptions, as demonstrated by the extreme reaction to the trust’s report in 2020 and among the National Trust’s membership.

“It’s so important to be sensitive and humane because we’re in a situation where many people are trying to enflame and start a false culture war, which is obviously unhelpful,” says Fowler. “In the ways we engage with this history, we must be careful not to unconsciously add to that toxicity. We must make sure that all of our work is rigorous and evidence based, and bring out the human meanings of that history.”

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