Houses of herstories
2018 saw a nationwide programme of events to mark the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which granted the vote to women over 30 who met a property qualification, alongside all men over the age of 21. Many Historic Houses places embraced this national interest in women and power by exploring the legacies of some of the women who shaped the houses and gardens our members so enjoy visiting today, such as Holme Pierrepont Hall, Markenfield Hall and Compton Verney.
Whether through hands-on management of the estate, championing community causes or commissioning landscape or architectural projects, elite women were often central to the evolution of historic houses and gardens. The stories of these women’s lives, and the equally important stories of the many women who worked at and around historic houses, are woven throughout the fabric of these special places – and have been for centuries. 2018 reminded us all that women's history is everyone’s history, and that telling women’s stories across the heritage, arts and culture sectors ought to be ‘business as usual’.
Last week we travelled to Oxford to join fellow heritage organisations and academics, artists and curators to discuss why this isn’t always the case, and to consider what can be done to ensure diverse female stories transcend the boundaries of ‘hidden histories’. Women & Power: Redressing the Balance, a conference held by the University of Oxford and the National Trust, sparked lively debate about how heritage organisations can continue to integrate women’s stories into broad national narratives. The key message: that by highlighting the relevance of diverse stories to people’s everyday lives, heritage organisations can grow and diversify their audiences and volunteer communities.
The conference also shone a spotlight on the significant opportunities to be had from partnership working – particularly with universities. For example, the year-long collaboration between Manchester Metropolitan University and the National Trust’s Speke Hall in Liverpool uncovered the legacies of former residents Ada and Adelaide Watt, which led to a programme of events at the Hall examining their role as prominent figures in the history of the North West region. Similarly, a collaboration between Kent University and Tunbridge Wells Museum uncovered the previously neglected history of women’s suffrage in the town, leading to a temporary exhibition, tours and talks and a dedicated website. Local residents, when asked to contribute family stories, were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about being involved in the research, and subsequently felt a personal connection to the exhibition; enabling the museum to reach new audiences.
Historic Houses member properties across the country have developed similar collaborative projects with universities – such as Stonor Park, Lamport Hall and Kelmarsh Hall – and the doors are open for new partnerships to develop. Do contact us if you think your house could benefit from working with a university, college or research partner; Historic Houses’ Learning Advisory Panel will be able to help advise you on where to start.
Sam Aaronberg (Operations Officer) & Emma Robinson (Director of Policy & Public Affairs).