What Do We Do With the Houses of Empire?
In June 2020, the statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston was toppled in the southwestern city of Bristol in England. Before this, the statue sat on a plinth in a prominent public park, before being hauled into Bristol Harbour by Black Lives Matter protestors. This act has led to a long-overdue reckoning in the UK and other Western nations, a reckoning that has necessitated a deeper analysis of monuments that line cities, and how deeply imperialism can be interlinked with parts of the built environment. The ever-green question is, what do we do with these buildings?
The United Kingdom is home to a wide array of grand country houses – large mansions in the British countryside that typically belonged to the nobility or landed gentry. They have been popular leisure destinations, with people flocking to them to appreciate their architecture and landscaping. Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, English Heritage sites had more than 10 million visitors each year.
But a lot of these country houses were influential sites of colonial wealth and operation. A report into houses managed by English Heritage – a charity that manages over 400 historic sites in England, revealed intimate connections to transatlantic slavery in homes built during this period. Another charity – the National Trust – identified in another report about a third of its collection as having links with the UK’s slave-owning and colonial past.
Rethinking History: Democratising Architectural Heritage
One of these homes is Dyrham Park in South Gloucestershire, a baroque country home built to exude a sense of power. The two-story front façade contains three bays on each side of the central doorway, which is framed by Doric columns. It is its interior, however, that houses the most visible connections to imperialism. Two pieces of furniture feature prominently in the building, made of beech and painted gold. They are of two enslaved figures, kneeling and chained at the ankle and the neck holding aloft a scallop shell.
They are part of a tradition of stereotypes that dehumanized African people, and also of a visual language that belittled the exploited African labor that contributed to European wealth.
Despite the prominence of these figures in Dyrham Park’s Balcony Room, before the 2020 inquest into imperial connections in country houses, tours of the estate failed to mention the figures in any capacity to visitors. The National Trust has started work acting on the report, looking to contextualize difficult histories for the twenty-first century, but can more be done?
Dyrham Park recently hosted an exhibition titled “Colonial Dyrham”, where music created by enslaved Africans was played, and discussions were had concerning the property’s links to slavery. However, there’s definitely scope for doing a lot more – especially in an architectural capacity.
Digital engagement curator Freya Samuel, on her platform The Art Wanderer, outlines essential steps towards re-curating and researching links to empire in country homes. Artist collaboration is mentioned, and so is co-production and reorganization, her overall direction being that of deep involvement with communities to uncover histories and of being comfortable with both the reorganizing and removal of contentious objects.
And spatial design has an integral role to play to enable this. Is there scope, for instance, for designers to be given the freedom to interrogate the spaces in English country homes? 2022 has seen the opening of exhibitions such as Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear at the V&A. London-based practice JA Projects developed a spatial experience featuring creatively-oriented plinths and contrasting material choices to explore menswear over centuries, contextually exhibiting both collections from the V&A and the under-appreciated styles present in African fashion.
Recent years have seen young studios embrace the temporary exhibition as a useful, accessible way of practice – such as Studio NYALI’s gathering space and Cave Bureau’s Anthropocene Museum in the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale.
Is there room for some of these country homes to perhaps act in a style similar to an architecture biennale – where the country homes function as an architectural shell within which practitioners can mold in roving shifts to better contextualize their collections and histories through diverse and constantly-changing curation?
Is there scope, too, for the characteristics of listed country homes connected to imperialism to be tweaked? A building being listed – especially in a Grade 1 capacity – means that there is extra control over what changes can be made to its architecture. Dyrham Park, for instance, has seen repair and alteration from highly successful architectural firms over the years, including a new visitor reception and an overhaul of its slate roof. Nevertheless, perhaps architectural firms should have the freedom to be able to refer to these histories of imperialism in a more explicit architectural manner, where a building is not only a product of its time but a part of a changing present.
It’s a deeply polarising conversation to have, but there’s scope for these histories to be examined in a spatial way, beyond simple labels, where these imperial examples of the built environment are not inflexible but open to constant curation and reinterpretation.