Cultural attractions ‘should’ inform visitors about links to slavery - our research reveals

By Jon Young

In September last year, the National Trust published an interim report on how historic slavery and colonialism links to the places they care for.   Although the National Trust have received much of the attention on this subject, a number of our other clients in the attractions sector have sought to re-evaluate how they talk about the subject area.

A key concern from our clients is the impact any reinterpretation will have on attraction visitor numbers.

Some worry that by drawing attention to the negative side of a place’s history, there is a danger that the ‘idealistic traditionalist’ may decide not to visit.

But others argue that following the events of the last year, the public’s understanding of how historic sites relate to slavery has shifted.  There is an expectation that interpretation conveys the full history of a venue (warts an’ all).  By doing nothing, they will be providing a sanitised version of what happened, which will lead to a less fulfilling visitor experience.  This will also mean people will decide not to visit.

As individuals, our team has fairly developed opinions on the subject – the excellent Story of our Times podcast on Penrhyn Castle will give you a clue as to mine.

But as consultants who work in the sector, we seek to understand the objective truth, so we put the question to the general public.

In September this year, we asked a nationally representative sample of the U.K. public (sample size of 1,750) the following question:

In the last couple of years, organisations such as The National Trust have started to examine the links their properties have with colonialism and historic slavery. In cases where slavery has played a large role in the site's history, how much do you agree or disagree these organisations should include information about their links to slavery as part of their on-site interpretation?

Our findings

The key finding was that the majority of the population (55%) supported information about links to slavery being included in the interpretation.  Perhaps more importantly, only a small minority of 15% opposed it.  30% had no firm opinion either way.

Where slavery has played a large role in the site's history, how much do you agree or disagree these organisations should include information about their links to slavery as part of their on-site interpretation?

Notably, although support for this sort of interpretation falls as people get older, it remains significantly higher than opposition for every single age group.  Arguments that there is a huge cultural divide by age are largely unfounded.

Where slavery has played a large role in the site's history, how much do you agree or disagree these organisations should include information about their links to slavery as part of their on-site interpretation?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is majority support across all ethnic groups, with agreement increasing to 7 in 10 UK residents of black ethnicity.  For sites that champion an inclusive agenda (which is every historic attraction we work with), this figure may be enough motivation to update interpretation in itself.

Where slavery has played a large role in the site's history, how much do you agree or disagree these organisations should include information about their links to slavery as part of their on-site interpretation?

We tried in vain to find an audience that is more likely to oppose, but such was the support for the suggestion, we were unsuccessful.  The closest we came was amongst ‘anti-vaxxers’.  But even amongst this ‘counter-cultural’ audience, support was higher than opposition – 39% to 27%.

Where slavery has played a large role in the site's history, how much do you agree or disagree these organisations should include information about their links to slavery as part of their on-site interpretation? (% of those that are opposed to vaccines)

A few words about the minority

This is a complex subject with many layers and nuances, and we don’t expect this one question to provide meaningful recommendations.  But we hope it demonstrates that – despite what some tabloids may say - opposition to including links to slavery is only held amongst a minority of the general public.

However, we mustn't forget this minority either.  Although 15% is relatively small, no venue would want to lose this amount of visitors.   With any additional interpretation on slavery,  this minority will want to be reassured that their ‘traditional visit’ is protected and that extra interpretation adds depth rather than takes anything away.

Our ‘Brand Purpose’ report, which will be released later this week, suggests that one possible objection from these detractors is that places are responding to a ‘woke’ political agenda.  So it’s important that interpretation is clearly supported by robust source material too.

We’re looking forward to investigating all of these issues in the coming months and years.  If you’d like to discuss this further, please get in touch, and make sure you keep an eye out for our ‘Brand Purpose’ report, which will discuss the response to brands leading with topical issues such as racism in their marketing.

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