HOW IS COLONIAL HISTORY REPRESENTED IN OUR REGIONAL HERITAGE?

August 3, 2017
Liz Haines

Recently the decision to change the name of Colston Hall provoked widespread debate. GW4’s Bridging the Gap project has now held a workshop at Dyrham Park, near Bath, to bring together researchers, participants from the heritage sector, community history groups and creative practitioners to consider how colonial history is represented in our regional heritage narratives. We hear from Research Associate Liz Haines about how history continues to shape today’s arts, cultural and heritage institutions across South West England and South East Wales.

The Great West region (South West England and South East Wales) has historically benefitted from the processes of violence, displacement, disfranchisement and unequal exchange that colonialism produced. Across the region there have been sustained efforts to reframe how those historical processes are presented, with historians and activists demanding that the public recognise a broader range of perspectives on Britain’s colonial past. This requires giving a platform to narratives that substantially address the brutality and tragedy that European colonialism left in its wake.

These demands are being met more often in public institutions such as universities and museums, and in black history community projects. Widely reported discussion around the naming of Colston Hall has brought Bristol’s slaving history more firmly into public consciousness. However, the work of generating public histories of colonialism that are more accurate, visible and inclusive is an ongoing and challenging project.

The group that met on 4th July were particularly interested in how collaborations could contribute to generating engaging and radical public histories of colonialism. Drawing together the expertise of academic researchers, museum and heritage practitioners, community historians and creative practitioners represented a starting point for such collaborations. We asked: what can each of these groups bring to the table to ensure that the region’s colonial heritage is narrated in ways that are accurate, challenging, moving, and meaningful?

Colonial networks of influence

The focus of the day’s discussion was the work of the National Trust at Dyrham Park, South Gloucestershire where the Trust is investing in new displays and strategies to present the history of Dyrham Park. Participants in the Bridging the Gap workshop were invited to ‘think along’ with the National Trust and consider what some of the challenges and opportunities will be in that process.

The group came to the workshop equipped with some reading about Dyrham’s history. The most important era for the house and gardens at Dyrham Park, was the 17th century, when they were owned by William Blathwayt (1649-1717). As Surveyor and Auditor General of the Colonies, Blathwayt oversaw a massive expansion of the colonial system, and an increase in revenues for the British government from plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean. The splendour and luxury of Dyrham Park demonstrate the importance of this governmental post and its financial reward. More particularly, however, it reflects Blathwayt’s central position in colonial networks of influence.

Blathwayt’s position at the hub of British colonialism meant that he was able to accrue plants, materials, objects and works of art from the boundaries of European trade- across the Americas and Asia. In decorating the house and planting of the gardens, Blathwayt could use the rarity and novelty of these items to dazzle his guests. Yet the mechanisms underpinning the arrival of these luxury goods included the transatlantic slave trade, and the genocide of indigenous Americans. To date, the National Trust has struggled to address the history and legacies of colonialism head on, but it is now seeking to do so.

In the first part of the day the group began with a discussion of what they saw the challenges and opportunities of this project to be. In a collective brainstorming process it became clear that the group’s experience could be far more than the sum of its parts. From an academic perspective, the group identified key areas for more detailed research.

Specialist expertise was able to address specific questions and challenges… yet moving people into different environments generated new types of conversation

Bridging the gap between rural estates and urban communities

In order for the National Trust to clearly articulate the relationship of Dyrham Park to the history of the slave trade more historical research would be necessary. Current scholarship doesn’t adequately explain the role of governmental administrators in producing and maintaining the plantation system. From a curatorial perspective, discussion began about the levels of knowledge of colonialism in today’s communities and audiences, the difficulties of speaking with and working with new groups, and the processes of dealing with contentious competition between different interpretations of the past. Workshop participants who brought experience in working in education emphasised the importance of bridging the geographical ‘gap’ between Dyrham Park’s rural location and urban communities.

After outlining these possibilities and directions, the workshop broke into groups to explore the house and gardens. Equipped with a sketchbook, the groups took their own paths through the property. Through sketches, notes, diagrams and fragments of writing, they recorded what caught their attention. Reconvening as a group, we presented these fragments, and gradually some key themes emerged. Particular objects, materials and spaces had caught the attention of the group as focal points that could connect the remnants of William Blathwayt’s house and story to other lives and sites that were caught up in his colonial networks.

Some objects demonstrate that history directly and viscerally, such as a pair of carved slave-figure stands. Other objects might allow for creative or metaphorical narration from the perspective of the victims of colonial violence. Both birds and water played important symbolic roles for enslaved Africans, connecting them imaginatively to their homelands, their lost communities and to lost freedom. The workshop group pointed out moments where these motifs appeared in the house, and could be used to voice the loss, absence and disenfranchisement of colonial relationships.

Engaged collaboration

This led to further discussion about how a re-interpretation of Dyrham could be historically specific. What was it important to articulate about colonialism in general? What, on the other hand, was inherent to this site, and its particular history that couldn’t be told anywhere but at Dyrham? How should future presentations of Dyrham Park reflect popular understandings of colonial history. Where and how should they challenge audiences with new detail or perspectives?

In a final phase of reflection the group produced postcards from the future, and sketched out what they hoped a reinterpretation of Dyrham would achieve.These postcards sketched out scenarios in which reinterpretation could benefit a wide range of groups, making Dyrham an important site for both existing visitor groups and new communities to experience and understand history. These visions of future possibilities at Dyrham coincided with enthusiasm amongst participants to continue discussions, and possibly to begin an informal network.

For us at Bridging the Gap the workshop provided another fantastic opportunity to explore engaged, interdisciplinary, inter-institutional collaboration. We were able to observe moments when specialist expertise was able to address specific questions and challenges. Yet moving people into different environments generated new types of conversation, and there was a great deal of commitment amongst all parties to learn from each others’ experience.

Dr Liz Haines is a Research Associate for GW4 Bridging the Gap.