Reflections from our freelance Research Associate, Dr James Wallis, on our 'Difficult Histories & Positive Identities' held in 25-26 February 2019
It is appropriate for a conference on Difficult Histories and Positive Identities to be held at a place like Cumberland Lodge.
The former royal residence used to be the seat of the Ranger of the Great Park, and derives its name from William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (1721-1765) – also known as ‘Butcher Cumberland’ for having ordered the killing of many non-combatant Highland Scots following the Battle of Culloden in 1746. At the conference, some guests challenged Cumberland Lodge about this ‘difficult history’.
And yet, Cumberland Lodge has also been the seat of an educational charity since 1947, born out of the experience of World War II. It is dedicated to tackling social divisions and promoting open debate about difficult ethical questions. This progressive use has provided a particularly positive identity for a building that has what some see as a difficult name and a challenging past itself.
The conference examined how the past is represented in the present. The ongoing impact of ‘difficult histories’ makes them the subject of intense, passionate debate in Britain and beyond. From everyday conversations, through to commentary pieces in mainstream media, the ideological and material legacies of the past are contested and discussed. As a result, policymakers, organisations and public bodies face growing calls to deliver more critical and more inclusive histories – not least in order to create shared identities.
Responses and reactions to this development emerged over the course of a rich, two-day conference programme. Speakers covered an array of contemporary case studies, ranging across Northern Ireland, Europe and South Africa. Talks showcased first-hand perspectives of interacting with legacies of the past. For example, we heard shocking but illuminating witness accounts from those who had experienced recent traumatic pasts, alongside practical insights offered by practitioners and academics.
Conversations at the conference revealed an assortment of thorny dilemmas that organisations and individuals need to contend with, in order to acknowledge the past in a more sensitive and accountable manner.
Two particularly prevalent themes materialised, over two days of presentations and breakout group discussions:
- The implications of increasingly scarce support and resources available to practitioners, such as limited teaching materials in the classroom, or the growing financial pressures exerted on museum learning programmes.
- A moral issue around responsibility. The question of, ‘for whom are these histories difficult?’ was posed, repeatedly. Whilst respectful recognition of the endeavours of those grappling with challenging pasts in their day-to-day practice was expressed, these concerns manifested around identifying who was best placed to supply potential remedies and answers (and, in the process, to be held accountable for these).
Managing the past in the present
Professor Martin Daunton’s public lecture on the Tuesday evening conveyed a call for all who engage with the past to pursue responsible utilisation and interpretation.
Martin highlighted that, when it comes to ‘difficult histories’, speedy outcomes and resolutions are few and far between. He cited British, American and Australian examples, in discussing calls to change the names of public buildings (such as the Colston Music Hall in Bristol). He also posited the challenges of statues, monuments and buildings perpetuating values that we no longer consider acceptable as a society, and instead respond to with a sense of oppression within public spaces. This view was set again the view that removing contentious names or monuments from public spaces risks historical air-brushing.
Martin went on to share some thoughts on another site currently under scrutiny: University College London’s Galton Lecture Theatre, named after the eugenicist Sir Francis Galton. In July 2019, an Inquiry Commission is due to deliver recommendations on the management of the University spaces and buildings that were named after prominent eugenicists (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2018/dec/inquiry-launches-history-eugenics-ucl). Delegates in the wider conference also reflected on the use of historical statues around the world being deployed as symbols – for issues of social justice, but also as sites of violence.
The need for braver confrontation of the past was echoed within the keynote delivered by Dr Roland Löffler, Director of the Regional Agency for Civic Education in Saxony (East Germany). He outlined the need for active engagement with the memories of the former German Democratic Republic, amidst a wave of rising populism.
Not only were both of these presentations timely and contemporary in their subject matter, but they also captured the fact that ‘difficult histories’ require sustained commitment on the part of governments, educators and learners. This commitment is a prerequisite for prompting engagement and shifting existing perspectives amongst the wider public.
Identity, remembrance and amnesia
Conference participants agreed that how we choose to collectively understand the past influences our sense of belonging and identity. ‘Difficult histories’ are a (personal) choice to engage with the past, as a method for broaching problematic legacies and uncomfortable subjects.
As conversations at the conference documented, honest reactions to such encounters ‒ for example, feelings of discomfort, guilt or even shame ‒ can function as a prompt for open conversation. Approaches can be adopted which place emphasis on asking alternative questions, allowing us to collectively change how the past is taught and written about. This idea of ‘dwelling upon’ as a way to subsequently move on indefinitely from the past advocates the potential of ‘difficult histories’ to be part of reconciliation efforts. In this way, reckoning with the past helps us to exercise aspirations for a more progressive and peaceful society.
However, engagement with ‘difficult histories’ also carries risks. One delegate defined the issue as being one of ‘silence or salience’ - in other words, adopting either a position of ignorance or a willingness to contemplate new perspectives. Many at the conference felt that both Britain, and Britons, should be more upfront in how they engaged with the country’s imperial past. The result of this ‘amnesia’ means that the UK remains a long way from delivering a national identity based on complex historical narratives that speak to a range of communities.
This conference mapped out how the past resonates in schools, museums and public spaces around the UK. By bringing together experts and practitioners from different fields, and different countries, it also sought to establish what might be learned from the experience of complex social and cultural histories in other local or international contexts. This knowledge would then be taken and formulated into substantive yet creative recommendations, to be distributed within the forthcoming ‘Difficult Histories and Positive Identities’ policy report.
The event perhaps felt a weight of expectation: that, over two days of session-based discussion, it could sufficiently mine the wealth of experience and skills present within a cross-sector group. Nevertheless, a diverse delegate audience of policy makers, activists, teachers, academics, sector-based community and heritage practitioners were bonded by their shared responsibility to help shape the positive identity of citizens. This cohesiveness manifested as a willingness to acknowledge, think through, and most importantly, do something fruitful towards addressing how these complex pasts shape community life today.