Letter From British Heritage – May 2008

Britain’s Past and Present: Making the Vital Connection

There are many reasons for championing history. The better we know and understand the past, the better we know and understand ourselves and our own times. Over the last year, Great Britain has engaged more seriously than ever in questions of its national identity. The country has become one of the great melting pots of our times. Ethnic and cultural minorities from across the globe fill British cities. You can pick up a Polish-language London daily newspaper; for years the most popular first name given boys has been Mohammad; few service jobs in the hospitality industry these days are filled with native English speakers.

While the United Kingdom has been more than hospitable to Commonwealth immigrants and its European Union neighbors, its cultural, religious and social values—what has been Britain’s identity and sense of itself—has come starkly into question. The difficulty is that while Britain has indeed been welcoming, it has not naturally integrated the newcomers into its society—let alone its institutions. Instead, each ethnic people has been encouraged, and socially funded, to keep its own organizations, celebrations, religions and communities. It has been easy to live in Britain, but it is not easy to become English, or Welsh or Scottish.

Interestingly enough, it is rare to see non-Anglo-Celtic British folk at the kind of heritage sites that we Anglophiles love to cross the ocean to visit. You do not typically find England’s ethnic minorities visiting at National Trust or English Heritage properties, or strolling the path at Stourhead. While the kids come in school groups, blazer-clad and clipboard in hand, they don’t usually return in family groups or as adults. It must be that they do not feel these places have anything to do with them. Or do they not sense a welcome and participation there?

We claim the land by knowing about it. It is the shared knowledge of the past and how it emerges into the present lives we lead together that creates a shared identity. The proposed new National Museum of British History is a step in the right direction. In the meantime, Britain would be well served to encourage all those who are there to claim the past for themselves, to visit the stately homes and gardens, castles and battlefields, industrial and folk life museums from Cornwall to the Highlands that are the physical memorials to British history.

Connecting Britain’s rich, colorful past and dynamic present, of course, is what British Heritage delights to do. Undoubtedly, getting everyone a subscription to the magazine could only serve the cause of understanding!

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