The Absence of an English National Museum
5th April 2016
This post comes from Tom Carter, PhD student in History at the University of Gloucestershire.
Having completed a degree in Heritage Management here at the University of Gloucestershire, and being persuaded into pursuing a PhD by my then tutor Dr Iain Robertson, inspiration for my thesis came from a visit to the newly refurbished National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. As I wandered around the galleries absorbed by the fascinating collection, the thought occurred to me that no such institution, dedicated to interpreting a single national history, existed in England. Some initial research revealed three attempts to create and English national museum within the twentieth century, and raised some interesting questions about what their failure tells us about the problematic nature of English national identity, its relationship within the wider context of Britain and Britishness, and how we define ‘national culture’ in this country. What my research uncovered was a narrative of how the relationship between Englishness and Britishness, and also how attitudes towards ‘culture’ and the role of museums have changed over the course of the twentieth century.
Defining Englishness has proved to be problematic for many people. This is partly because many of the mechanisms that help foster a unified national identity, from the standardisation of language to the creation of flags and symbols have been utilised to foster the United Kingdom and the British Empire, not England itself. Much of traditional, vernacular English culture was in many ways subsumed by British culture in much the same way that Gaelic, Welsh or Cornish culture was. What differentiates Englishness from these other cultures however, is the fact that Britishness was built on the foundations of English institutions, centralised in London. Consequently English and British was, and in many ways still is, used as an interchangeable term. This has proven particularly problematic in more recent decades, as the Empire ended and nationalistic, devolutionary movements have emerged in the rest of the UK. Whilst Scotland and Wales have a unique, pre-Union culture to fall back on, for the English the connotations of Britain and its Empire have proven more difficult to disentangle. Should Britain cease to exist as a political Union, where does this leave England as a separate culture? This is an ongoing question, to which I don’t have the answer, but it reveals one of the central arguments against an English national museum. How do you create a solid, material manifestation of a nation, when that nation and its identity remain so difficult to define? Ultimately there are also many political and theological arguments against the creation of a national museum. After two world wars which were ultimately caused because of extreme nationalism in Europe, England as a nation has been increasingly reticent about identifying with nationalistic symbols. Images of far-right bigotry and football hooliganism seem to prevail against any desire for the promotion of English national symbols. New Labour were particularly keen to distance the nation from the ‘little Englander’ attitudes of the Tory Shires and promote a global, multicultural and forward looking culture.
These shifting attitudes to Englishness and Britishness have arguably been reflected in the way that museums have developed. In the nineteenth century many of the countries public museums such as the British Museum, the Natural History Museum and the V&A manifested Britain’s place as a global power and its ideals of culture and civilization. Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts demonstrated Britain’s place as the heir to the great Empires of the past. Aristocrats brought back Renaissance art from the Grand Tour to demonstrate their wealth, education and taste. The extensive collection and cataloguing of exotic flora and fauna demonstrated Britain’s ability to define the natural world, whilst ethnographic collections of ‘primitive’ tribal artefacts helped to demonstrate its dominion over the globe. Where British artefacts were included, they tended to be contemporary examples of the nation’s industrial and manufacturing prowess. In such museums there was little space for vernacular English artefacts.
Over the course of the twentieth century however, museums and heritage sites have increasingly recognised the value of English history and culture. In the early years of the century this was particularly driven by folklorists and ethnographers who campaigned for the promotion and preservation of what they saw as a more pure form of Englishness which was under threat from the modern processes of industrialisation and urbanism. A vision of Englishness emerged which was focused upon the rural, agricultural past. Interestingly however, the regionalised nature of this form of Englishness also made it inappropriate for a national museum. Attempts to create an English national folk museum in the 1930’s and 1950’s both met with resistance from those who argued that agricultural practices, vernacular architecture, and non-material traditions such as songs, dances and rituals would be better represented on a local, rather than national level. Britain did indeed see a proliferation of local museums and heritage sites in the post-war era, aided by both increasing legal protection for historic buildings and increasing interest in social history. Ultimately this is the direction that the heritage sector has moved in. In 2009 when the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council ran a consultation process about a proposed Museum of British History, curators and historians reacted negatively to the idea of representing national history under a single roof. They argued that the nation’s history is not a single, London-centric narrative, but an assemblage of stories, cultures and identities, all of which are better served by maintaining a network of museums and heritage sites rooted in their local communities and the places where history really happened. This is where the debate currently stands, with little political or professional will to create an English national museum. However, if my research has taught me nothing else, it is that ideas of culture and identity are not fixed, but constantly shifting. The potential exit from the EU, or a resurgence in Scottish Independence could give English national identity a new impetus. Under such circumstances a national museum might prove desirable, after all, nations often look to their past to help shape their future.