National Trust publishes new survey report on links between historic places, colonialism and slavery

The National Trust has published a report showing connections between 93 of its historic places and colonialism and historic slavery.

The survey, commissioned by the Trust last September, is part of a broader commitment to ensuring links to colonialism and historic slavery are properly represented, shared and interpreted as part of a broader narrative at relevant National Trust places. 

The conservation charity has to date explored histories of colonialism and slavery at some of its places including projects such as ‘Colonial Countryside’, which has worked with school children at selected Trust houses.

The new report provides the basis for a broader approach, to help contextualise the history of National Trust places.  Drawing on recent evidence including the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project and the Trust’s own sources, the report also aims to provide greater clarity about the relationship between the historic sources of wealth linked to colonialism and historic slavery, and buildings and collections in the care of the National Trust. It also documents the way that significant National Trust buildings are linked to the abolition of slavery and campaigns against colonial oppression. 

Dr Tarnya Cooper, the National Trust’s Curatorial and Collections Director said:

“The buildings in the care of the National Trust reflect many different periods and a range of British and global histories, – social, industrial, political and cultural. 

“A significant number of those in our care have links to the colonisation of different parts of the world, and some to historic slavery. Colonialism and slavery were central to the national economy from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Around a third of the properties now in our care have direct connections to wider colonial histories, often in a way that’s reflected in collections, materials and records that are visible at those places.

“As a heritage charity it’s our job to research, interpret and openly share full and up-to-date information about our places. This includes information about colonialism and slavery where it is relevant. This is part of caring for our properties in a historically responsible and academically robust way. The work helps us all understand what’s gone before; now and for future generations.”

Tarnya continued: “This report is the fullest account to date of the links between places now in the care of the National Trust and colonialism and historic slavery. 

“This work is in no way exhaustive and we will be adding to it as we do more research. But it is an important foundation to share what we already know to form the basis of our own future research and interpretation at the places and collections that have links to colonialism or slavery and for other researchers. We have much more work to do to explore the wider histories at our places.”

The Trust’s report begins with thematic sections including the global slave trades, goods and products of enslaved labour; compensation for slave ownership; abolition and protest; the East India Company; and the British Raj. A factual gazetteer lists 93 individual places and collections that have strong historical links to Britain’s colonial past.

It has been edited by Dr Sally Anne Huxtable (National Trust Head Curator) Professor Corinne Fowler of the University of Leicester, Dr Christo Kefalas (National Trust World Cultures Curator), Emma Slocombe (National Trust Textiles Curator) with contributions from other Trust curators and researchers around the country. 

Some of the research from the report has already been used to update the Trust’s digital content and is supporting a review of visitor information and interpretation at relevant properties. 

John Orna-Ornstein, the National Trust’s Director of Culture and Engagement added: 

“These histories are sometimes very painful and difficult to consider. They make us question our assumptions about the past, and yet they can also deepen and enrich our understanding of our economic status, our remarkable built heritage and the art, objects, places and spaces we have today and look after for future generations.”

A working group of external specialists, chaired by museums and heritage consultant Rita McLean, will be advising and steering the Trust in this work in the coming months, and the Trust will also be working with other National Trust organisations around the world to connect these histories globally.

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