The National Trust recently found itself at the centre of a public debate on its role as an organisation dedicated to preserving historic homes and landscapes. The debate stems from a series of ongoing exhibitions and programmes celebrating the contributions and lives of people connected to National Trust properties whose sexuality and gender identity broke with the social norms during their lifetimes. Prejudice & Pride is a year-long programme devoted to exploring and celebrating LGBTQ histories; histories which have been hidden for far too long.
I should perhaps declare an interest in this matter. I am currently a PhD student with the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester and I have worked on Prejudice & Pride in the capacity of a research assistant. I have spoken with members of the public about the project and conducted interviews with them to better understand their views about the importance of projects like this one to highlight LGBTQ lives. My work on the project has been as an evaluator; I have not been involved in the research, interpretation, or programming at any of the sites.
I should also like to declare for the record that I am a member of the National Trust. I have written blog posts previously about trips to National Trust properties and visits to National Trust properties make up a large portion of the holidays and weekend breaks I take with my partner and his family in the UK. I also have a background in historic preservation, having taken coursework in the United States focused on preservation of historic buildings and gardens within the North American context.
This is all to say that I view this debate through a variety of lenses: as a museologist, as a campaigner for equality and human rights, as a member of the National Trust, and as a preservationist. When I first became aware of Prejudice & Pride, I was excited about the National Trust focusing its resources and efforts on such a project. One of my main criticisms of the Trust has been its focus on wealthy, white, straight families and men in particular. Prejudice & Pride was a breath of fresh air sorely needed. The Trust hasn’t been alone either. Many national, regional, and local museums have been commemorating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality over the past year. The BBC itself has run a variety of nuanced, reflective, and powerful documentaries and dramas of their own to mark this occasion.
Much of the controversy around the National Trust has centred on Felbrigg Hall. As part of their contributions to the project, they have produced a film which provides a nuanced portrayal of the last ancestral owner of the Jacobean house. Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer was a poet, justice of the peace, and was also a homosexual man. The information in the film was based on research conducted by the University of Leicester. His sexuality was well-known to his close friends. The fact that it was not widely discussed comes as no surprise when he died merely two years after the 1967 act which partially decriminalised male homosexuality in Britain.
Along with the film, volunteers at Felbrigg were asked to wear rainbow lanyards and badges during the length of the Prejudice & Pride exhibition. Volunteers who were uncomfortable with this were asked to work away from the public. When news about the film and the lanyards broke, there was an inevitable knee-jerk reaction especially on the part of conservative media outlets. The godchildren of Ketton-Cremer expressed their disapproval of the film as did a number of volunteers who felt he had been unfairly “outed” by the National Trust. Further, the Daily Mail reported that 75 volunteers were in “revolt” over the mandate to wear “gay pride badges.” In actuality the number of volunteers was 30 out of 250 and after the story broke, the Trust reversed its decision to take volunteers out of public facing roles if they refused to wear the badges and lanyards. It was also reported that over 250 people had cancelled their membership in the wake of the controversy. What was less reported what that that 7000 people bought new memberships in that same time period.
If we think quantitatively then, this brief controversy highlights that it is a small albeit vociferous minority which has taken exception to the events at Felbrigg. We might look at it another way, there is overwhelming support for the National Trust taking on projects such as Prejudice & Pride and showing support for the LGBTQ community.
Despite the numbers, there is an overwhelming part of me which wants to engage with and respond to the detractors. At heart I am an educator and I strongly believe in the ability of museums and heritage sites to be part of the process of building fair, equal, and just societies. This belief is not simply borne of my own experiences as a museum-goer and museologist, it is reflected in the ever-growing body of literature produced by both researchers and practitioners.
While the story was being covered in the press and while debates were raging over social media, I noticed that one refrain kept being repeated: the National Trust should go back to preserving buildings and stay away from political agendas. This was repeated by conservative journalists as well as members of the public opposed to the project. While there were other arguments made, it is this one I wish to concentrate on.
The National Trust and indeed all museums and heritage organisations can and should be doing this work. Since the 1990s there has been a sector-wide shift in defining the social purpose and the social value of cultural institutions. The shift has been to re-focus the sector from collections preservation and didactic communication models to audience-centric programming and learning experiences. This trend has been supported by the research, by practitioners and by visitors. Why preserve these objects, houses, and landscapes if it is not for the benefit and enjoyment of people? And should it not be for the benefit and enjoyment of all people?
For centuries white straight males have been at the epicentre of the museum world, dictating what was collected, displayed, and how objects were interpreted. This conditioned the public to believe that this perspective is neutral, safe, devoid of politics. But indeed, nothing is further from the truth. For the National Trust, indeed for any heritage organisation, to choose to continue as it had been since the nineteenth century with a focus on rich white landed gentry, to continue to ignore the contributions of LGBTQ people, women, and people of colour is a political decision. Cultural institutions have the ability to reframe our understandings of history to include those who were forgotten, ignored, and abused. They give us a fuller picture of who we are, where we have been, and where we are going. They should not be safe. They should be brave. They should be forever, for everyone.
The National Trust is striving to change its image as a staid organisation, comfortably behind the times and safely out of the way of contemporary life and debates. Projects such as Prejudice & Pride will help to change minds about what is and is not the business of the National Trust. Along the way, there will be those who feel left behind, who feel that their beloved apolitical conservation organisation has been hijacked by those with their own agendas. What has been shown this past week is that while there are those who do not welcome the changes, there are far and away more people who do welcome them and support this direction.
I for one am proud to be a National Trust member and I am proud to be contributing to the work on Prejudice & Pride. And thanks to this past week, I know that I am not alone and that there are many who are proud to support the National Trust and LGBTQ people.
Photo Credit: Nick