As part of ongoing work to illuminate the true histories of its houses and country estates, the Trust has compiled a 115-page report which it hopes can provide a foundation to better tell the lesser discussed stories of all its sites.
The document examines several topics integral to contextualising the properties’ pasts. These include the goods and products of enslaved labour, compensation for slave ownership, and the process of abolition.
It is worth noting that the report, which is informed by recent evidence including the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project alongside the Trust’s own sources, was commissioned in September 2019; prior to this summer’s push for institutions to alter their storytelling around imperial rule and slavery.
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“As a heritage charity it’s our job to research, interpret and openly share full and up-to-date information about our places,” states Dr Tarnya Cooper, the National Trust’s curatorial and collections director.
“This includes information about colonialism and slavery where it is relevant. This is part of caring for our properties in a historically responsible and academically robust way. The work helps us all understand what’s gone before; now and for future generations.”
Cooper acknowledges that a “significant number” of National Trust sites have links to the colonialism and that some also have direct ties to historic slavery. This is no surprise, she adds, given that its diverse array of properties “reflect many different periods and a range of British and global histories” and that “colonialism and slavery were central to the national economy from the 17th to the 19th centuries”.
The charity has explored histories of colonialism and slavery at a limited number of its properties before, including in the Colonial Countryside project which worked with school children at several historic houses.
“These histories are sometimes very painful and difficult to consider,” notes John Orna-Ornstein, the Trust’s director of culture and engagement. “They make us question our assumptions about the past, and yet they can also deepen and enrich our understanding of our economic status, our remarkable built heritage and the art, objects, places and spaces we have today and look after for future generations.”
Tarnya Cooper concludes that while the report is the “fullest account to date” it is “in no way exhaustive” and the Trust will be continuing its research in the weeks, months and years ahead.
Some of the report’s findings have already informed updates to the Trust’s digital content and will also support a review of visitor information and interpretation. A working group of external specialists, chaired by museums and heritage consultant Rita McLean, will further advise and steer the Trust from this point on.
Read the full report here.