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The academic leading the National Trust’s efforts to explore links between its properties and colonialism has warned of a “menacing” attempt to censor and politicise historical research.
Prof Corinne Fowler, the director of the Colonial Countryside project, said her work was “absolutely not political” and that politicians should not “weaponise history”, adding: “When you try to interfere with academic freedom in the name of free speech, you’re steering the country in a dangerous direction.”
Fowler spoke to the Guardian ahead of a government round table with 25 heritage organisations to discuss their history amid a national reckoning over institutions’ links to slavery in particular.
This weekend it was reported that Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, would use the round table on Tuesday to warn organisations against focusing too heavily on Britain’s imperial history. In a letter to the Common Sense Group of MPs, Dowden said the country should not “run from or airbrush history” and asserted that “public funds must never be used for political purposes”, the Daily Telegraph reported.The Guardian view on British history: we need to know | Editorial Read more
Dowden and the heritage minister Nigel Huddleston have invited leaders of 25 heritage charities, museums and art galleries to the discussion in Whitehall, including the National Trust, Historic England, British Museum, Horniman Museum, Imperial War Museum, Science Museum Group, National Portrait Gallery and British Film Institute.
The culture secretary is expected to discuss contested heritage and encourage attenders to adopt a “retain and explain” strategy towards historical artefacts, such as statues depicting individuals with links to the slave trade.
A National Trust spokesperson said: “We always aim to be transparent and factual about the places we care for and we look forward to the discussion.”
Fowler and the National Trust have been at the centre of a growing row over Britain’s approach to history, with the Common Sense Group of more than 50 Tory MPs in January asking the culture secretary to investigate how funding was agreed for the Colonial Countryside project, which it described as an “ideologically motivated endeavour” to rewrite history.
The four-year project, which started in 2018, received funding from the Arts Council and the national lottery, and is investigating the African, Caribbean and Indian connections of 11 country houses the National Trust manages.
It is working with 100 primary pupils, 16 historians and 10 commissioned writers, and hopes its legacy will be “to ensure that colonial connections are integral to the stories that audiences discover” when visiting sites. Fowler also co-edited a report, commissioned in 2019, into connections between 93 National Trust properties, and colonialism and historic slavery.National Trust hastens projects exposing links of country houses to slavery Read more
Fowler, a professor of postcolonial literature at the University of Leicester, said it was “menacing” to suggest the government will determine which future projects are funded.
“How can less history be better than more history? Surely we should be expanding and deepening our understanding of history in all its complexity,” she said. “And historians do rewrite history. Stonehenge has just been discovered to have a different history based on new evidence. It’s the same with colonial history, as new evidence comes to light, we reassess our view. That’s what historians do.”
Fowler said she had been researching country houses and empire for 10 years but her work had never received this level of attention previously, something she attributes to a “culture war” being declared after the Black Lives Matter protests last year. “But some of us don’t want to fight culture wars, we want to have sensible conversations about evidence-based research,” she said.
She likened the attacks on her work to those previously experienced by climate scientists, adding: “I’m very worried that all across Europe, and in the US and in Australia, there are similar attacks on academic freedom like this. And these attacks tend to be directed at prominent female academics.”
“We need to be vigilant here and stand up for a healthy democratic society, which still believes in the quality of evidence and research rigour.”
Also speaking ahead of the round table, Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association, urged the sector to “ensure editorial integrity and resist attempts to influence content and interpretation by interest groups including funders”.
“It seems odd to be prioritising this now when so many who work in museum and heritage are focusing on recovery and welcoming our communities safely back into our venues,” Heal said.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has been approached for comment.