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Reorienting the Home Front: Spatial History and Collective Memory

By Clemency Anderson

Does the past sometimes feel ‘far away’? Can we ever ‘go back’? And ‘where’ did we come from?  These questions demonstrate that we often conceptualise and speak about history in spatial terms. That is, we describe the past as a place. History has famously been called a ‘foreign country’. Perhaps the more ancient the history, the more time we need to spend in transit – interpreting, translating, contextualising – to get there.

Conversely, physical places can immediately connect us with historical narratives. Those who have taken a tour of Pompeii, or visited the September 11 Memorial, will know that the historical sites can compel emotional reactions which bring the past up close. Likewise, in our everyday lives we assign value to rooms, buildings, and cities according to the historical associations that they hold. What may seem to be a very ordinary street can take on new significance when we learn it was once the site of a martyr’s execution, or remember walking along it as a child.

This inextricable connection between our sense of history and our sense of place inspires my current project on homes as sites of historical analysis. I have chosen homes as the most personal, intimate, and relatable of all historical sites. In the U.K., the National Trust owns over 300 historic houses, most of which are open for visitors to tour and admire. A typical visit to an ‘historic house museum’ (as scholars describe them) exposes visitors to historical facts and anecdotes via tour guides, brochures, or placards. This experience can serve to illuminate remarkable historic individuals, expose class and lifestyle disparities, demonstrate changing technologies over time, and establish a sense of local and national identity.

Scholars have described the public as holding a ‘collective memory’ which serves as a repository of information about their cultural identity and national past. Some have theorised that this collective knowledge is transmitted and shared through cultural artefacts, from film and literature to social media. Cultural authorities like museums have a special role as ‘external memory banks’, trusted to contain the truth about our national past. When we visit a museum or gallery, such as a stately home, we are reminded of certain cultural narratives and our collective memory is reinforced.[1]

However, problems occur when our collective memory of certain people and events is too simplistic or biased. This is especially true when it is perceived that violent pasts are being side-lined, that moral issues are being written out of the past, or that individuals are being typecast as heroes or villains. ‘Culture wars’, such as we are currently seeing around the removal of Confederate monuments in the United States, are often the result when entrenched collective memory is challenged by a different historical interpretation. I believe that some of these problems could be prevented if we engaged further with spatial history and captured the power of places to connect audiences with more nuanced versions of the past.

Take, for example, the well-trodden history of Winston Churchill and the Second World War. Popular histories of Churchill tend to locate their narrative in public spaces – the House of Commons, the beaches of Normandy, the conference rooms of Yalta. These places determine the stories we can tell and may leave the public with an occasionally two-dimensional history of unerring Churchillian triumph. I am convinced that a study of Churchill’s family home, Chartwell, opens up new avenues of research – not just in understanding his domestic life, but his politics, too.

At Chartwell, Churchill’s complexity – his strength as well as his frailty – are on show. Different rooms, furnishings, and photos provoke contemplation of alternate aspects of his character. Within a single home, we encounter diverse portraits of this national hero: Churchill as painter and writer, father and husband, outspoken politician and charismatic socialite, often determined and occasionally dismayed. We also must contend with his illness and death, as well as the personal tragedies he faced, like the death of his young daughter Marigold. The design of the home speaks to the personal tastes of Winston and Clementine, and the visitors’ book holds secrets of the close associates that gathered here.

As I work to consider the ways that house museums can be used to their full potential, I am motivated by online reviews of Chartwell. Visitors describe walking around the grounds (‘You could picture how they lived… You could almost “hear” the children playing’), entering the home (‘It was good to see the rooms and imagine the Churchills with their many famous visitors’), and spatially connecting with history in new ways (‘I’ve read loads on the great man but being here, at his home, was a once in a lifetime experience’).[2] We ought to utilise homes like Chartwell because they bring the past into the present, and are able to spark public interest and light a candle to forgotten aspects of the past.

Image: Chartwell, by Clemency Anderson

[1] The definitive work is Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, translated by L.A. Coser (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006).

[2] Reviews from the TripAdvisor website helpfully confirm some of the ideas put forward in this article. Visit https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g580429-d547580-Reviews-Chartwell-Westerham_Sevenoaks_District_Kent_England.html for more examples.

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