In an attempt to modernise, the National Trust has arranged for its staff and volunteers to be “reverse-mentored” by school children about the links between National Trust properties and slavery and colonialism. Pupils have been drafted in to uncover the “uncomfortable truths” of Britain’s shameful past and give lessons to the adults who preserve its buildings, gardens and countryside.
At first glance, it seems odd that young people are being used to re-educate the knowledgeable guardians of our great country houses. What could an expert in 17th century portraits learn from a 12 year old? What could the “child advisory board” teach to the keepers of Cliveden House? However, the simplicity of a child’s question can reveal a hidden truth. “Why is that man in the painting carrying a sword? Does he want to stab someone?”. With devastating precision, a childish question can reveal the murderous horror hiding in plain sight. Only a child can see so clearly.
This clarity of vision is only possible from a young mind that has not been warped by the nuance and perspective gained from life experience. Lacking historical understanding, children can provide judgement on a past that they don’t need to fully understand. By simply looking at paintings in the grand houses, palaces and mansions, children are pointing out that they were once inhabited by people who fought wars, colonised other countries and made their wealth from exploitation and plunder. By telling National Trust employees that this is bad, youngsters are delivering a simple lesson in morality.
Guides can now improve the ‘visitor experience’ by helping visitors to feel disgust at what they see. Aimless wandering through dusty rooms on a Sunday afternoon will become an emotional reckoning with the past. Children can tug at their parents’ sleeves and inform them that everything they are looking at is simply the plundered wealth of racists. “Ming vase mummy, plunder!”, “Mahogany wardrobe daddy, that was made by slaves”, “Fireplace grandma, that’s where they burned the peasants when the firewood ran out”. This way, a pleasant day out at the National Trust can be transformed into a solemn lesson.
Children are ideal educators. Schooled on a diet of the BBC’s excellent ‘Horrible Histories’ TV programmes, children understand that people in olden times were largely mad, bad or evil. At school, they learn that Britain is a shameful country, built on slavery and colonisation. The National Trust is now giving these children the opportunity to bring this learning to bear. Adults who have dedicated their lives to the preservation of our heritage, are now realising that they are merely maintaining monuments of barbarity.
Once the National Trust has re-trained its guides, children could move on to educate its gardeners. Why should 10 year olds have to follow their parents around yet another garden designed by Capability Brown? Nowadays, shouldn’t Tudor gardens include a zipwire? Soft ball play areas could replace the fusty formality of the Victorian garden and the fountains could be filled with Haribo sweets. McDonalds could replace the cafés that currently serve tea (the drink of colonialism) and scones (a snack of the ancient and old). The National Trust could transform their properties into playgrounds for the young.
Instead of granting access to enjoyable country walks, an annual membership could harness the spirit of youth and finally eviscerate our tarnished heritage.