6 September 2023

How can arts and heritage help us find common ground on inclusive histories?

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From the legacy of Edward Colston to the lyrics of Rule Britannia, arguments over history and the legacies of colonialism and transatlantic slavery have boiled over in recent years into what many describe as a ‘culture war’. On the one hand, the Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests of 2020 have given fresh momentum to efforts to tell a fuller, frank and more inclusive account of our past in an increasingly diverse Britain. But this has also encountered backlash from sections of society concerned about what this will mean for the rituals, traditions and milestones of British identity.

If the nation is wrestling with its sense of identity, and about what our history means for who we are as a society today, are there ways to help navigate this debate and call off the ‘history wars’? And what role might the arts and heritage sectors be able to play in facilitating a more constructive conversation?

A new report from British Future, Inclusive Histories: Narrating our shared past in polarised times, explores these questions, to provide insights for practitioners working in museums, galleries and other cultural institutions about how to work on inclusive histories in ways that confidently navigate ‘culture war’ polarisation about our past.

The report explores how organisations have responded to these debates, to reach ethnic or social minority audiences that the sector has historically failed to engage, while also bridging audiences from across the spectrum of public opinion, including groups with frustrations or questions about how interpretations of our history are evolving. The new research draws on interviews, roundtable discussions and case studies led by British Future to collect experiences of organisations on the frontline of these often-heated debates.

Source: Igwatala (license: CC BY-SA 4.0)
Image: St Paul’s Cathedral has recently commissioned a Nigerian-born artist to produce a mixed-media artwork, ‘Still Standing’, that reinterprets an adjacent brass plaque commemorating a Royal Navy Admiral involved in the Benin Expeditions

What has been clear from the findings is that major ‘history war’ flashpoints have impacted the confidence of practitioners to engage in public debates about how we present and understand the past. Many of those interviewed for the report shared concerns that instances such as the backlash to the National Trust report on colonialism and historic slavery had left them wary of publicising work on inclusive histories, for fear of sparking ‘culture war’ challenge with national media profile.

Yet it would be a mistake for organisations in the culture sector to avoid such debates. Indeed, avoidance carries risks, as public appetite to learn about these histories is growing ever stronger. Rather, the report argues that proactive strategies are needed to defuse unconstructive polarisation and broaden public awareness about these areas of our past. It sets out a series of ‘conditions for confidence’ to engage in and navigate the national conversation.

Firstly, the sector should use the power of major events to catalyse efforts on inclusive histories. The 75th anniversaries of the NHS and Windrush showed how moments of heightened public interest in our past offer an opportunity for organisations to align work and communicate in broad coalitions.

Secondly, there is a need for a stronger evidence base on public attitudes – among majority and ethnic minority audiences – about themes of history, race and how Britain commemorates its past. This will help practitioners to better understand public opinion, how under-represented audiences wish their histories to be told, and how to contest the claims of critics opposed to work on inclusive histories who claim to speak for the majority.

And thirdly, the report argues that arts and culture practitioners should think more strategically, at the outset of their work, about how to frame and communicate efforts on inclusive histories. This should include engaging diverse audiences and also communicating about this work with more sceptical sections of the public, such as those who are anxious about shifting approaches to how Britain commemorates its past.

This can include ways to engage in open dialogue with concerned audiences about complex histories, ‘calling in’ critics, as Professor Corinne Fowler details in her commentary for the report, reflecting on experiences of navigating contestation over her work on the National Trust report. It can also involve shaping inclusive history work through deliberative public consultations. Open public engagement exercises, for example, have succeeded in building consensus for new initiatives in areas with fraught divides such as Bristol, in the renaming of Colston Hall to the Bristol Beacon, and the relocation of Colston’s statue.

The report does not prescribe any single method for engaging with the complexity of our history. There is a strength in a plurality of approaches, with a range of objectives and different target audiences. Rather, the research seeks to draw lessons that can help practitioners to promote educative debate across their audiences, capable of deepening public awareness about the origins of our modern society.

The national conversation about Britain’s past and how we acknowledge our complex role in global history is only going to grow in salience. But an important point, acknowledged by a museum director interviewed for the project, is that cultural institutions are “among the few free civic spaces where generations with different views on our past come together.”

We hope that curators, directors and others across the culture sector will reflect on how to harness this power: to shift the dynamic of debates and to promote more dialogue, counterbalancing the polarised spats and clickbait arguments often waged online. Those on all sides of the ‘history wars’ can agree that we are more divided as a society than anyone would want. Our aim in this report is to offer advice and support to those seeking common ground.

Download the ‘Inclusive Histories’ report here