“Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet. They are what we call civilisation.”
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
Many years ago when I was working in historic houses in Australia, I observed a pre-school group being taken around Vaucluse House, on Sydney’s outer harbour. Bought in 1827 by William Charles Wentworth (of crossing the Blue Mountains fame), and much altered and added to by the family over 50 years, the house and grounds became a museum in 1915. The house’s public rooms were full of Victorian furnishings and decorative objets d’art, particularly the drawing room. This roped-off room was stuffed with burgundy red upholstered chaise longue and low chairs, delicate papier-mâché chairs, occasional tables, piano, every surface filled with aspirational objects – stuffed birds under glass domes, ticking gilt clocks, figurines, brass and silver candelabras, etc, thick woven carpets on the floor and heavy curtains framing French windows looking over an exquisite garden down to the harbour. As the guide encouraged the small children to look and talk about what they could see, one little curly-haired girl whispered, puzzled: “everything’s missing in this house”. She elaborated – no power points, plugs or light switches, no TV or video, no toys, no books, no newspapers or magazines, no electric lights, nothing that she would take for granted in a living room. There was no toilet, bathroom, kitchen as she would understand it, no appliances. There was no sign of habitation or of the people who might have used this room. William and his wife Sarah Morton Cox (isolated all her life from ‘polite’ Sydney society because she was the daughter of convicts and had borne William two children outside wedlock before he married her) had ten children. There was no sign of the servants and convicts who toiled and cleaned. I have always remembered this little girl’s “emperor’s new clothes” view of the recreated world we were gazing at – it was so upside down, so truthful, so looking through different eyes. http://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/vaucluse-house
Ten years later, in 2004, I was hesitating outside Kalmar Castle in Sweden, having seen so many cold, draughty castles, empty whitewashed spaces, ammunition, cannons and cannon balls, pikes and staffs and armorial displays or lavish recreations of interiors in UK that yet another castle did not appeal. But what I found inside was so exciting, challenging and provocative that I have never forgotten it. Contemporary artists had created installations using sound, objects, fabrics, light, furniture, voices – in various rooms – the nursery, a dining hall, kitchens and cellars – which engaged and provoked visitors as they moved through the spaces inhabited once more by people and the stories of their lives. Wandering through the castle was a journey of discovery as you never knew what you would find in the next space. In the former 19th century women’s prison, life-sized dramatic and shocking black and white photographs brought the visitor face to face with named women and their stories, with historic cases and punishments from archives from 15th – 19th century. The disturbing and powerful image of one woman fighting with her hands raised, being buried alive after being found guilty of adultery stays with me still as does another of a woman hunched over, forced to carry two huge heavy stones hanging from each shoulder for weeks as a punishment for theft.
I remember these two examples particularly as they each challenged, questioned or explored how visitors perceive what they are presented with in historic houses and buildings. In Vaucluse House the child could find little familiarity or relevance to her life. Watching from a barrier, there was no opportunity for her to directly experience, explore and connect with the house she was visiting. At Kalmar, aspects of Swedish-Danish history and life were suggested or interrogated through creative, momentary art installations which both delighted and surprised visitors. And the terror and resignation captured in photographs of women’s faces remain with me still, providing a direct emotional connection between me and their stories.
The past months I have been thinking a lot about relevance and meaning, value, “truth” and illusion in the way we approach heritage and history, spurred on by two conferences on opposite sides of the world: Re-Imagining Challenging Histories in Cardiff in June and the combined National Trusts and ICOMOS (Aust) People’s Ground conference in Melbourne, Australia in early October. Both offered much food for thought as I prepared a paper for the second one. Speakers in Cardiff reflected on the silences in our historic sites and challenged received ways of interpreting and communicating history. Where was interpretation of the bitter long-running quarry workers strike among all the splendour of Penrhyn Castle, a “19th-century fantasy castle” in Gwynedd? Why did some visitors to Southwell Workhouse leave thinking that treating poverty by reintroducing workhouses for the poor and those on benefits was an acceptable solution now? How were the stories these places were presenting relevant or even “truthful” today? Why are many historic buildings and houses still in the business of creating illusions about the “civilised” past? To what extent are our shared illusions about the past responsible for the uncomfortable places we find ourselves in at the moment?
As part of the Melbourne conference, I attended a workshop run by Franklin Vagnone, from New York. As I had worked in house museums in NSW from 1989-1997, the title of his recent book, The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, intrigued me. Anarchy and historic house museums? The workshop at the National Trust’s Rippon Lea did not disappoint and again the ideas of value and relevance came to the fore in Franklin’s discussion and inspired some radical questions. What happens if you open all the doors, take down the ropes and barriers and let people go where they will? What happens when you invite people to communicate what they like and don’t like about the way a house is presented and say what they would do if they were in charge? What happens if you have tea and sandwiches in the drawing room, sitting on the furniture and let people inhabit spaces as they were meant to be inhabited?
As workshop participants we were given labels and invited to write down our responses to spaces, objects, furnishings, rooms etc and leave the labels in situ. Part of the fun was reading other labels that had already been left by earlier workshop participants. I wandered along corridors, opening closed doors, discovering narrow back stairs, cluttered attics, broom cupboards, storage under stairs, empty rooms and staff spaces and opened drawers and doors, trunks and wardrobes. I wandered into what appeared to be the Sargood family’s former nursery, silent and cold, the toys displayed in glass cases like so many Victorian children’s corpses all dressed up for display. I felt nothing but a sense of dread.
Later as we sat in the drawing room sipping tea and eating sandwiches, we discussed the experience and our responses. Given NT’s and other historic house organisations’ usually reverential approach to house museums and the families (but not the servants) who inhabited them, and the sacrosanct nature of the interiors and furnishings, this was brave of the National Trust and I hope that it found Franklin’s approach as refreshing as I did, offering new opportunities for future directions.
I am left with many unanswered questions – Do we just accept unquestioningly a curatorial view that these interiors are worth keeping, pickled in aspic, soaked in formaldehyde, frozen in time, telling stories that are so far removed from our experiences now? Are visitors doomed to be always voyeurs, traipsing around with guides, guide books or audio, through a static landscape, or could they become active participants in creating relevance for themselves and others? Could they become part of a conversation between the house and its caretakers and the public? How could these places begin to move beyond the illusions they create and support about life and people in the past and start to explore the at times uncomfortable truths about these pasts?
To be continued