Dealing with difficult history
England’s history is fascinating, complex and sometimes controversial. And it’s our responsibility to try to explore the past in full.
History has never been more popular. Our vast appetite for learning about the past is catered for by a wide range of content: we watch YouTube channels and TV series, we listen to podcasts and radio documentaries, we read bestselling books and glossy magazines and, of course, we visit all manner of fascinating historic sites.
This widespread consumption of history is a relatively recent phenomenon and, over recent decades, it has prompted increased public discussion about the complex relationship between the past and the present day. As Sir David Cannadine put it, ‘History is no longer the exclusive domain of “dry as dust”, but an essential – and thus a contested – part of our broader national culture and national life.’
Since the summer of 2020, history has barely left the headlines. In particular, there has been heartfelt, and often heated, debate about how we commemorate individuals and events of the past, and about the appropriateness of statues and memorials that we have inherited from previous generations. It’s a complex issue and, as custodians of our nation’s heritage, it’s only right that we engage with it.
When dealing with so-called 'contested' or 'difficult' history, English Heritage has absolutely no intention of removing statues, taking down plaques, or trying to 'cancel' history in any way whatsoever. Instead, it is our ambition to explore it more deeply and more broadly than ever before.
The extraordinary range of the sites, statues, plaques, monuments and collections in our care provide – to an unparalleled degree – rich material for exploring England’s past. As a charity, we’re responsible for sharing the fruits of this exploration with the entire nation. That means telling familiar stories, but it also means addressing those communities and groups in our country whose histories may have been previously overlooked – something we’ve tried to do for many years.
This can be done by bringing previously ignored stories to light, or by looking at places, people and moments from different perspectives. Like all good historians, we seek to improve our understanding of the past with new evidence and insights.
As with everything we do, this important work is grounded in research, aimed at ensuring that our interpretation of the past is rigorous and well-informed. Our historians, curators, conservators and scientists have an outstanding reputation for the excellence of their research. They use varied techniques – including documentary research, archaeological investigation and scientific analysis – to gather as much evidence as possible.
The work of the experienced professional historian does not end there, of course. The evidence is questioned, interrogated and then analysed. Hypotheses are drafted. Background knowledge is drawn upon, long-term historical trends are considered, secondary texts are consulted, theories are formed, judgments are made and counter-arguments are put forward. Books, articles, interpretation panels and image captions are written, and other historians are invited to comment and critique. This process of ‘doing history’ is painstaking and complex, and all of English Heritage’s experts hold themselves to the very highest standards of professionalism.
The majority of today’s historians do not believe that history can be reduced to a simple narrative of progress – of good people doing good things and bad people doing bad things. It’s not a fairy tale – it’s real life. And real life is rarely simple.
We can be awed by the political and cultural reach enjoyed by Britain at the peak of its imperial pomp – but we can also recognise the conflict and pain caused by colonial regimes. We can commemorate Sir Arthur Harris as a man who helped defeat Nazi Germany, but we can also acknowledge that he, under orders from the War Cabinet, oversaw the area bombing of cities including Hamburg and Dresden, during which thousands of civilian lives were lost. We can enjoy visiting Brodsworth Hall – and we certainly want you to do that – but we can also point out to visitors that the hall’s owners made a good chunk of their fortune from the transatlantic slave trade.
England’s history is full of stories of heroism, courage and innovation, and these are a source of great inspiration and comfort. Our past has also left us a wonderful collection of buildings, monuments and objects that we are incredibly privileged to care for. We are rightly proud of England’s history and its heritage and, as a charity, we will do all we can to protect it for future generations to experience and enjoy. But being proud of something doesn’t prevent us from exploring it more deeply. We can feel pride in the achievements of the past and, at the same time, be critical or questioning of certain aspects of it.
And these thoughts and feelings can exist alongside each other, because the past is not something we must choose to either ‘cancel’ or celebrate. Instead, it’s a process of discussion, reflection, debate and learning. Sometimes this process may be challenging or uncomfortable, and we may not always agree with each other. But by engaging in it, we learn something valuable – about ourselves, about the people in the past, and about the rich, fascinating, and complicated ways in which we are all inextricably connected with our history.
English Heritage never has, and never will, try to 'cancel' our past. We will continue to do what we’ve always done, which is to try to understand it, and to share our findings in a fair-minded, open and honest way. We will continue to welcome people of all backgrounds to explore England’s past for themselves, in the very places where it happened. And above all else, we will continue to do our very best to protect it for future generations, so that they too may do the same.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Here we tackle a selection of questions most commonly asked about our approach to contested history
Are you trying to rewrite history by applying modern values to the past?
We always take historical values into account when we look at a particular period, and we recognise that it’s vital to understand how people thought about the world and themselves in their own times. It’s true that today’s historians will inevitably have different perspectives on the past compared with, for instance, Victorian historians. But this isn’t ‘rewriting’ or ‘erasing’ history – it’s merely expanding and refining our understanding of it.
Are you prioritising black history in response to Black Lives Matter?
The debates that took place in 2020 made us realise that we have sometimes overlooked the histories of people and groups because of religion, race, sexuality, gender, disability and other characteristics. We have been increasing our efforts to make sure that these stories are no longer ignored, but we will never do this at the expense of the stories we already tell.
Are you changing or removing blue plaques and statues?
No, we won’t remove or change any of our blue plaques and statues. We may publish more detailed information about the recipients of blue plaques and statues on our website, but we’ll strive to do this in a balanced, thoughtful manner, and we certainly never rush to judgment.
Don’t you want us to feel proud of our history?
Just as there are in the histories of any individual, group or nation, there are parts of England’s story that people are rightly proud of, and other parts that people may find more uncomfortable. Our country’s history is all the more interesting because of this complexity, and we firmly believe that we can remember the ‘bad’ and very much still celebrate the ‘good’.