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Re-imagining the country house

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Country house

In the run up to our Engage 2014 conference we are exploring the conference themes of 'Captivating places; Captivating ideas; Captivating people: Unlocking the potential of curiosity-driven engagement'. Here, Dr Oliver Cox, Knowledge Exchange Fellow at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), explores the challenge of bringing the worlds of heritage and higher education together.

I am lucky enough to work with over twenty engaging places in my role as Knowledge Exchange Fellow at TORCH | The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. My challenge is to link a heterogeneous mix of country houses – from the enormous, established international tourist destination of Blenheim Palace through to the less-visited but equally important Nuffield Place – with the research expertise contained within the University of Oxford through the Thames Valley Country House Partnership

For the American Anglophile, Henry James, it was a truism that the country house encapsulated the themes of the Engage 2014 conference: captivating places, captivating ideas, captivating people, when in 1879 he wrote: 

Of all the great things that the English have invented and made part of the credit of the national character, the most perfect, the most characteristic, the only one that they have mastered completely in all its details so that it becomes a compendious illustration of their social genius and their manners, is the well-appointed, well-administered, well-filled country house. 

Now thanks to the so-called ‘Downton Boom’ we’re experiencing a new high point of global fascination with the English country house. The challenge for academia is to work out how to get a slice of this action. My answer is simple. We work in partnership with the owners and managers of captivating places and help them to fill them to the brim with captivating ideas and captivating people extracted from archival research to enthral a new generation of visitors. 

Fortunately, the public who rode to the rescue of many of the larger country houses, are now engaged with as equal partners rather than the slightly more feudal approach captured in British Pathe’s 1957 report, ‘Who’d be a Duke?’ 

This November I was part of the fortieth anniversary to the key to this cultural shift, the 1974 exhibition ‘The Destruction of the Country House’ curated by Sir Roy Strong, Marcus Binney and John Harris. This exhibition was a furious salvo that used the destruction of homes – with all the emotive resonances contained within that term – to move the public into accepting the country house as part of national heritage, with the potential to tell stories that resonate across classes and cultures. 

Artisrt in Residence imageToo often, however, these captivating places have dodged the bullet and failed to tell these stories in a way that engages and inspires the visitor. Often this has been a question of resources. These captivating places are driven by issues of preservation, presentation and interpretation underpinned by a requirement to get numbers through the door: archival research was often the first to go. Yet this is exactly where universities should, and can help. We need to re-imagine the country house, not just as a container for art or social history, but as an institution with a continuous archival record stretching back hundred of years, ready to be creatively raided by a variety of different disciplines and academic approaches. 

The challenge is how to bring together the two worlds of heritage and higher education, which often pass by each other like ships in the night, in a way that’s mutually beneficial. Within higher education, heritage is often used as a word of abuse rather than encouragement. Yet the heritage sector is not the academy’s opposite or its adversary. It is, simply, another way of engaging with the past, and most importantly, offers a potentially vast audience for great storytelling. 

Oliver Cox will be speaking with Andy Beer, Head of Visitor Experience at the National Trust, at the Engage 2014 Conference.

What do you think? Do heritage and higher education pass by each other like ships in the night? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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