Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The sanitized past

click photo to enlarge
Much of the past that is presented to us in film and television, print and the web is a heavily sanitized version of reality, a past that is made more acceptable for modern consumption by being scrubbed clean and tidied. This is especially so with regard to heritage sites. There are a number of factors that give rise to this. Much of what remains was the property of the rich, is durable, designed to be visually attractive, and consequently over-represents their part in history. The remaining artefacts and homes of the poor are much fewer, less substantial, and are invested with less ornament. Unlike the rich, the remains of the past's poor frequently lacks a written narrative or primary sources that allow a detailed story to be woven around it. History is written by the victors, and the victors were invariably the rich.

England's National Trust has often been criticised for their lack of representation of the poor in the properties that it owns and chooses to receive or buy. It has responded to this by attempting to show the lives of servants in country houses as well as those of the owners, and by giving greater emphasis to the everyday activities - cooking, cleaning, gardening etc - alongside the usual interpretation of the building, art, sculpture and furniture. To further counter this criticism the Trust has also acquired a wider range of properties, including, for example, Southwell workhouse. For some critics, however, the final product looks like tokenism. Stephen Bayley has called it, "Disneyfication" and "intellectual slumming".

Today's photograph shows the inside of a large kitchen at Audley End, a Jacobean country house in Essex. This building, like most of its kind, was modified by successive owners. The kitchen presented here dates from the Victorian era. It looks quite a sight with its large, blacked range, white tiles,  glowing copper pans and rustic basket. What's missing of course is the army of servants engaged in hours of drudgery, using the range and pans to prepare meals and burnishing it between times. In fairness to English Heritage, who are now the custodians of this building, staff in period costume do make an attempt to show something of this. It does, however, like most re-enactments, come across as all rather jolly fun rather than a daily grind of long hours and hard work.

photograph and text © Tony Boughen

Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 27mm
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/15
ISO: 3200
Exposure Compensation:  -0.33 EV
Image Stabilisation: On