English heritage sites are often lauded as the epitome of British identity and are often centres of attraction for buzzing tourists and high culture types. To boast and have pride in national identity, landscapes and history is something that creates surety of self and sometimes the feeling of superiority, but what of the British who fail to see themselves in English heritage?
Being of mixed heritage and made to feel my identity was more a political piece in a board game than the things I hold most dear from my Caribbean roots, I’ve alway struggled to find my space in English heritage sites. The St. George’s flags flying over my head was a little unnerving to be honest, it brought back images of racial violence and skinheads (not the originals but the nazis) attacking young black men in the 70s, not exactly a flag I find pieces of myself in, and I still don’t want to.
So why is it so hard to find ourselves in a history our ancestors built at huge cost to human life and psychological detriment?
It’s exactly that, English heritage sites have always boasted of White aristocracy and often failed to address the human rights violations and sheer brutality that helped to streamline income to afford the grandeur of stately homes. Jane Austen hints at Slavery in Mansfield Park as a side note and we saw the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle hit the big screens not too long ago. However we still don’t see representations of ourselves in these spaces.
Additionally, many of the landowning gentry claim to have “found America”, also known as Native American or First Nations People genocide. Is this why we often don’t find ourselves in the fabric of these National Trust spaces and why they encounter low numbers of a “BAME” audience – according to an independent study?
In addition, journeys to such sites are often associated with school trips, exhibiting (as it often felt) a bus full of “brown people” for photo opportunities to see how well English Heritage sites were “engaging with urban youth” *eyeroll*.
So how do we find pieces of ourselves in heritage sites that exist at the expense of Black and Brown lives throughout history in the 21st Century?
A lot of the language still used excludes and frankly whitewashes our existence out of history, rarely do we find the genuine stories of the people at whose detriment, these sites have flourished. And rarer still are the stories told by the institutions and sites waving British Heritage / National Trust flags.
However, this is looking to change. A recent project I’ll be producing with Beatfreeks is The Impact of Brown: At what cost?
We’ll be delving into the histories untold at Warwick Castle with the help of 3 poets and 3 visual artists – who are yet to be commissioned, so keep your eyes peeled for the opportunity – we’ll be discovering and uncovering the socio-economic conditions in which Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, a Landscape Gardener, changed how Britain see and craft modern gardens.
This project is in celebration of Capability’s 300 year anniversary and is happening in collaboration with Warwick Castle, which fun fact, was the first garden Brown designed following his horticultural training at Stowe.
What I find exciting about this project is that large heritage sites such as Warwick Castle are willing to have an honest conversation about a bleak past. I’m not saying all the work is done, there are still ginormous waves to be made in tackling everyday white supremacy and narrative erasure but it’s a huge step to healing some of the wounds that are still raw and uncomfortable.
Afterall we learn most from uncomfortable situations, when real talk is flowing and we can walk in other people’s shoes. Cliches, yes, but true, most definitely.
We were featured on BBC Radio 4 about our work with Warwick Castle to engage young people from diverse backgrounds with Brown’s work and the socio-economic context of it.
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