Dyrham Park is a 17th century mansion near Bath in South West England, one of hundreds of historic properties to visit in the UK. Films such as What remains of the day and Sense and Sensibility: the cinema is one of the sources of funding for these places that also receive public funds through what is called the National Trust.
In one of the living rooms of the house there are two statues representing two crouching black men, with a golden ring around their necks and chains that close around their ankles, and a plate on their heads. The plate was filled with rose water for visitors to wash their hands. Visitors pass by and receive all kinds of explanations about the furniture, the paintings or the tea sets. But until now the guide used to “forget” even to mention those statues, according to the reporter of the New Yorker who participated in the tour a few months ago and interviewed people who had done the tour. The slogan of the guides of these mansions is to create a pleasant space for a weekend walk, not necessarily to give a history class.
The owners of the mansion were George and William Wynter, who like many Britons made their fortune in the 16th century from the slave trade. Since the National Trust agreed to learn and explain a little more about the history of these houses and their inhabitants, on the Dyrham Park website, between the announcements of autumn workshops and the details of the types of squirrels, there are also a dedicated section to “our stories of colonialism and historical slavery.”
It is not about removing the statues or hiding them, but quite the opposite, to explain, to complete. And even so, both the mansion and the organization that preserves these houses have received complaints and even violent threats. As is usual in a country with a mediocre press, several newspapers have taken the opportunity to turn the study into an accusation of gardening racism or an alleged universal condemnation of Churchill because his mansion also had connections with colonialism.
Giving more information about History instead of seeing it as something sacred and frozen in the story of a few is not a threat, it is a way of looking back with more data. Yes, the eyes with which we look are those of the present because we have no others and that is how each generation has looked. Often talking about it is simply remembering facts that are forgotten by the majority, such as that The UK continued to pay debts until 2015 to compensate families who had enslaved people for their “loss” after the prohibition of slavery in the 19th century.
Looking back is also an opportunity to remember that societies can improve even in the midst of the most turbulent and hopeless of times.
Britain’s fear of bothering with more explanations has to do with who continues to make up the majority of the house’s conservation body and who remains its main visitors. Despite the multicultural variety of the country, mansions remain an essentially white recreational activity. The National Trust now organizes special tours with the help of groups from commonly excluded communities. But the best way to include more people is by telling at least a more complete story.
It is very likely that most still visit the mansions to see squirrels or to remember the series or movie that was shot there, but also that more people may have answers to pertinent questions.
Being afraid to face the most uncomfortable parts of our history reveals complexes present that try to cancel any debate in a society that is more and more open, more restless and with less desire to be silent before the dominant voices of always.