Monthly Archives: June 2018

Sir Roy Strong, country houses and heritage

Yesterday I had the pleasure of interviewing Sir Roy Strong for my book. Sir Roy was director of the National Portrait Gallery from 1967 to 1973 and of the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1974 to 1987. Striding into the café of the National Gallery in a richly patterned, powder-blue suit and a beard reminiscent of a sixteenth-century Spanish grandee, Sir Roy looked less like a former museum director than a hipster. Now 82 years old, the man who as a research student blew part of his grant on a Teddy Boy coat, remains true to himself.

A leading figure in the museum’s world during the 1970s and 1980s, Sir Roy Strong would be an interesting person to talk to anyone interested in museums in this time, especially as he introduced many things to Britain we now take for granted such as friends of the museum organisations and third-party sponsorship. I was particularly interested in an exhibition he initiated soon after the became director of the V&A. The Destruction on the Country Housetried to mobilise public opinion to save Britain’s stately homes from demolition. Increasingly hard to maintain since the First World War, they faced a new threat in the 1970s in the guise of a proposed wealth tax.

Conceived as a polemic—one room showed pictures of destroyed houses on a crumbling portico, while their names were being read in the background—the exhibition naturally faced a lot of criticism. It hasn’t fared much better in historiography. Patrick Hewison calls it “a covert piece of propaganda against the wealth tax and a lament for the disappearance of a genteel way of life”.1 Peter Mandler sees it as an expression of “the mood of the V&A’s director Roy Strong, who like many of the younger fogeys had played a part in the light-hearted nostalgia boom of the late 1960s but was beginning to sour on modern life and, indeed, to find refuge in the better world of Brideshead”.2

I can see Hewison and Mandler’s point. Browsing through the exhibition catalogue, I was struck by how hideous many of the destroyed houses were. Some heirs were only too glad to get rid of their impractical, draughty inheritance. Many houses also didn’t predate the nineteenth century and therefore could hardly claim much historic worth. Not to mention that many of them were built on the back of slavery and exploitation. However, an occasionally country house tourist myself, I can also see the point of those, who wanted to preserve them.

The Roy Strong of the 1970s and 1980s wanted to make the museum more democratic and to defend the country’s heritage from destruction. “One of the burning reasons for wanting to direct the V&A”, he recalls in his edited diaries, “was the passionate belief that a huge threat was on the horizon for everything that we now categorise as ‘heritage’, and that that museum under my directorship could play a crucial role as a vehicle in its defence.“3 In doing so, he brought about what those he calls “the Antis”—Robert Hewinson, Patrick Wright, David Lowenthal—termed the “heritage industry”. Once retired from the V&A, Sir Roy soon sounded more like an “Anti” himself, lamenting “this country’s addiction to heritage”.4 Today he criticises the commercialisation of the museum that in his eyes has gone too far. In the end, however, it was probably not an either/or question: commercialisation was the form the democratisation of the museum took.

  1. Robert Hewison, Culture and Consensus: England, Art and Politics since 1940(London: Methuen, 1997), 193. []
  2. Mandler, Peter, The Heritage Panic of the 1970s and 1980s in Great Britain, in: Peter Itzen, Christian Müller (eds.), The Invention of Industrial Pasts. Heritage, Political Culture and Economic Debates in Great Britain and Germany, 1850-2010 (Augsburg: Wißner, 2013), 58-69, here 64. []
  3. Roy Strong, The Roy Strong Diaries 1967-1987(London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997), 121. []
  4. Roy Strong, Strong Points(London: Thames and Hudson, 1985), 70. []

Nostalgia in Contemporary Culture, University of Southern Denmark, 4-5 June

Last week I attended  a conference on “Nostalgia in Contemporary Culture” at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense organized by Rune Graulund, Niklas Salmose and Eric Sandberg. They are members of the project Nostalgia in Contemporary European Culture hosted by the University of Oulu, Finland. With participants from all over Europe as well as the United States, Turkey, China and Japan and with colleagues from literature, film and media departments, the conference was both extraordinary international and interdisciplinary. The topics of the papers were equally wide-ranging touching on poetry and crime fiction, autobiography and Ostalgie, digital kitsch and the Gothic (for the full conference programme click here). Yet, as broadly as nostalgia was used at the conference, it provided a common theme that helped to bridge the divides between disciplines and allowed for many interesting discussions and conversation. I was speaking
in the only panel directly dealing with politics, which shows that nostalgia studies are still primarily focused on culture—literature, film, TV, the internet etc.—rather than politics. However, Trump and Brexit were mentioned by many papers throughout the conference, which might suggest that nostalgia studies are increasingly discovering politics and the relationship between politics and culture. Whatever road nostalgia studies may take, I enjoyed the conference very much, all the more because I returned with two gifts: Analoge Nostalgia in der digitalen Medienkultur by Dominik Schrey and Once Upon a Time: Nostalgic Narratives in Transition edited by Niklas Salmose and Eric Sandberg.


New publication: Forum on nostalgia in History and Theory

The June edition of History and Theory includes a forum on nostalgia with papers by Achim Landwehr, Patricia Lorcin and myself.

TOBIAS BECKER, The Meanings of Nostalgia: Genealogy and Critique (232-248)

Nostalgia has become a new master narrative both in public discourse and academic research, serving as an explanation for trends in fields as different as popular culture, fashion, technology, and politics. This essay criticizes the wide-ranging use of the term. It argues that nostalgia often does not adequately describe the diverse uses of the past to which it is applied. It does this by historicizing the nostalgia discourse with particular emphasis on the 1970s, when dictionaries first noted a semantic shift from homesickness to a sentimental yearning for the past, and intellectuals discussed a widespread, pathological “nostalgia wave.” After the introduction, the second section looks at the changing meanings of nostalgia, the third examines how the “nostalgia wave” was seen to manifest itself and who was thought to be afflicted by it, and the fourth discusses contemporary explanations. Building on this, the final section critically examines the nostalgia discourse before evaluating its continuing influence.

ACHIM LANDWEHR, Nostalgia and the Turbulence of Times (249-266)

The concept of nostalgia has an invaluable advantage: In contrast to other cultural concepts, it has an exact date of birth. It was in 1688 when the medic Johannes Hofer published a thesis in which he described an illness he termed with the neologism “nostalgia.” But instead of following the academic and larger cultural discourses that evolved from this starting point until the present, the question that deserves some attention is which temporal setting goes along with the concept of nostalgia. Most of the experts on nostalgia as a sickness during the last three and a half centuries did not diagnose themselves but others, quite often patients from rural areas who had to leave home to work abroad, where they became nostalgic. With this diagnosis these experts also established a certain time-model, because they separated a “modern” time-model of irreversibility from a “nostalgic” time-model of reversibility. If we take a closer look at the nostalgia diagnosis and its consequences, we might also gain some ideas for our thinking about the theory of history.

PATRICIA M. E. LORCIN, The Nostalgias for Empire (267-283)

The aim of this article is to explore the theoretical and practical differences between colonial and imperial nostalgia. It opens with a substantial theoretical discussion of the relevant scholarship followed by an analysis of the nostalgias of empire. Nostalgia, in relation to empire, is usually analyzed as a longing for a period of former imperial and colonial glory, thus blurring the various hegemonic practices associated with empire. This elision arises out of the fact colonialism was integral to European imperialism. Yet there is a significant distinction between imperial and colonial nostalgia. With its main focus on postcolonial society in France and Britain, the article will theorize the differences between them, arguing that one is connected to the loss of global power and the other to the loss of a socioeconomic lifestyle. It will explore the way in which these two types of nostalgia are constructed and historicized, examining their differences from historical memory through the responses of both former colonizing and colonized individuals or groups. It will demonstrate that collective nostalgia is not merely a “feel-good” sentiment about an idealized political or socioeconomic past, but can be readily connected to coming to terms with past trauma(s) thus being a mechanism to elide violence experienced and violence perpetrated by highlighting one to the detriment of the other.