Rejecting nostalgia for positive change

Bernard Donoghue
It’s fascinating that one of the TV programmes that has had the largest increases in viewers during lockdown is BBC One’s The Repair Shop.

The show, which now regularly attracts 6million viewers, is set in the bucolic surroundings of the Weald & Downland Living Museum, West Sussex. It features skilled craftspeople repairing the shabby but much-loved personal items of members of the public.

The items tell touching stories of lost family members and distant childhoods. Binoculars and glassware, chipped cups and grimy oil paintings are all treated with the same reverence that you’d see on Antiques Roadshow, except here the value is not financial, it’s emotional. In our Amazon Prime era of immediate gratification, it is a rare showcase for the luxury of taking time and care.

Facing up to false histories

I think it tells us something else too. At the moment, the future feels daunting and uncertain. The past, in contrast, is reassuringly definite.

We may not know where we are going but we can take comfort in knowing where we came from.

Just as visits to historic houses surge at times of recession and austerity – and, in particular, an increased interest in visiting the ‘downstairs’ parts of these great houses –  other consumer behaviours change too. During the last economic recession, between 2008 and 2013, TV programmes like Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs were commissioned, so too were The Great British Bake Off and The Great British Sewing Bee.

Nostalgia for a past that may never have happened, and a delight in ‘make do and mend’ pervaded. 

And during lockdown, it still does. Many of us have appreciated home comforts and crafts; visitor attractions have seen recipes and gardening tips downloaded by hundreds of thousands of people. Home baking has exploded, occasionally literally. 

"The confluence of lockdown and #BlackLivesMatter has been an astonishing moment."    

But nostalgia can also be toxic. The false histories and fabricated truths. The whitewashing of uncomfortable legacies. Our cities and historical prosperity, the UK’s global power and influence, may have been created and carried on the shoulders of giants but also on the backs of slaves and slavery.

The confluence of lockdown and #BlackLivesMatter has been an astonishing moment.      

As a white, middle-aged male, the last couple of weeks have been, for me, an utterly extraordinary educational period. Many of us have learned more about the scale, horrors and the local legacies of slavery than we ever did in school. We are being forced to confront unpalatable truths and question accepted wisdom and history. Lockdown has made many of us yearn for a nostalgic, simpler past (one – it must be acknowledged – that benefited white people more) and when it is shown to us in its unvarnished horror, people like me are realising that we don’t like it after all.

Discussing unsafe issues

If we ever needed a mandate from the public for us to tell full, unadulterated stories of people, places and collections, this is it. When public trust in politicians has reached the lowest level in my lifetime, people are looking to museums and galleries, historic houses and heritage sites, the repositories of national DNA and memory, to get it right. To be safe places in which to honestly discuss unsafe issues.

There are so many fantastic examples of this already:

Funders, like The National Heritage Lottery Fund, can use their power to encourage debate, to highlight best practice and to support bold, creative storytelling.

Beyond museums

Packwood House
The grounds of Packwood House in Warwickshire, which are reopening after lockdown

 

The confidence to tell unpalatable truths cannot be simply be a matter for museums. It should be heritage and cultural economy-wide.

Our landscapes and countryside are every bit the physical manifestations of choices and power. The further away you travel from cities and towns in England, the less likely you are to see someone who is Black, Asian or another minority ethnic community as Jesse Bernard wrote in The Guardian in 2017. It is one of the reasons that Black and minority ethnic communities disproportionately don’t access the countryside, our landscapes and our rural economies, and, therefore often don't feel part of the stories of those places. The onus is on those with the power to do so to make the welcome more explicit and authentic.

We must not sacrifice inclusion

Lockdown has, for me, prompted a further question. 

"Has lockdown just been a pause before normal service resumes? Or can we do better?"

Before we rush headlong to open our attractions, are we content that we just unlock and welcome back the people we said goodbye to in early March?

Has lockdown just been a pause before normal service resumes? Or can we do better?

Work differently, more creatively. Ensure that not only are diversity and inclusion budgets and programmes not sacrificed in the inevitable cost-cutting, but that we work to ensure that our audiences, visitors, staff, governance structures and partnerships, are reflective of the communities that we serve.

Being bold about our value

Inverleith House
Inverleith House in Edinburgh

 

Tourism is the UK’s fifth biggest industry and third-largest employer. In a normal year it is worth £157bn to the economy. It is one of the largest employers in every part of the nation.

We know that our heritage and our culture are the principal reasons that overseas visitors cite for visiting the UK, regardless of their age, gender or nationality. We know that our fellow citizens say that our heritage and culture, and their access to and enjoyment of these, are vital to their happiness and wellbeing. 

Much of the visitor economy will take the longest to recover from coronavirus (COVID-19). There will be redundancies, hard decisions to make and certain losses. There will, inevitably, be economic calculations which will dominate conversations about value.

"We, in the heritage sector, cannot let GDP be the only benchmark of success." 

But we, in this sector, cannot let GDP be the only benchmark of success. Heritage and tourism is where you grow people, communities and shared principles and values. It is also the backdrop for people’s happiest memories, of respite, learning, mental and physical exercise, illuminating our future through understanding and explaining our past. That’s of great value.

Now, as never before, we have an opportunity to be bolder and more authentic in our storytelling, to be more creative in our partnerships, to be better neighbours. To mend and to celebrate what really matters.

About Bernard Donoghue

Bernard Donoghue has been the Director of ALVA since September 2011 following a career in advocacy, communications and lobbying, latterly at a senior level in the tourism and heritage sector.

In May 2017 the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, appointed Bernard to be the Mayor's Ambassador for Cultural Tourism and a member of the Mayor's Cultural Leadership Board.

He has been a member of of the UK Government's Tourism Industry Council since 2016.

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