Why I was disappointed by the ‘Heritage Centenary Debate’

My work took me to Germany last week, so I missed the heritage debate held at the RIBA last Monday night: a big event supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council with the participation of English Heritage, The National Trust and the Society of Antiquaries.

I’m as interested in anyone else in the future of the heritage and the way it receives, or doesn’t receive, public funding.  Last night, then, I thought I’d watch the film of the discussion.  They were debating the proposition that This house believes that future care for our heritage requires Government as our champion.

So I went onto the AHRC website to have a look.  But I could hardly credit what I saw.


I looked again.  I blinked.  I rubbed my eyes.  I checked the calendar.  No, we had not miraculously time-travelled back to 1953.

What I saw was a photo of the six participants.  I saw six talented, charismatic, well-informed, passionate people. But there was something else they all had in common.  They were white, and male.

There’s a lot of talk about why heritage is a bit of a Cinderella in terms of public funding, which I won’t go into here.  But it strikes me that one very important reason is that many people (and voters) see heritage as something that belongs to white men, and (with apologies to the participants) men of a certain age at that.

This picture did absolutely nothing to overturn that image.

It was frankly such a turn-off that I literally turned off.  I can’t tell you if the debate was any good, because I was so disheartened that I didn’t watch it.  Maybe they even addressed the mysterious absence of females from the panel in the first five minutes.  But I didn’t get that far.

Now, come on guys (for guys indeed you are), surely you KNOW that half of the potential supporters of the heritage are female and need to see themselves reflected in the debate about the subject?  My kindest conclusion can only be that the organisers asked lots of the many female experts available in this field, but that the silly little things were all busy washing their hair on Monday night.

So, this is my friendly but very serious personal challenge to Professor Maurice Howard, President of Society of Antiquaries, Simon Thurley, Chief Executive Officer of English Heritage, Sir Simon Jenkins, journalist and Chair of The National Trust, Stephen Bayley, author and cultural critic, Robert Hewison, cultural historian, and John Howell, MP for Henley-upon-Thames:

I challenge you to pledge that in future when you’re invited to take part in a conference panel with absolutely no women on it, you’ll send your polite regrets!  

And next time, we’ll talk about ethnicity.

13 thoughts on “Why I was disappointed by the ‘Heritage Centenary Debate’

  1. John Wilson

    I support you 100%. Women think differently, but their contribution is invaluable.

    John Wilson

  2. Su Beech

    How did it happen that there were no women or people with rainbow colour hair? There must be a reaso and then we can look into it. Is it possible that it just happened like that? How can one take a conclusion for granted without looking into the situation?

  3. John Hall

    I agree, we still live in a world where those men of a certain age, colour and no doubt class are still in charge. Gender, race, age and class eqaulity are largely myths, disseminated by the ruling elite.

  4. Jules Lubbock

    Couldn’t agree more

  5. Brian Worsley

    Debating panels with any knowledge on any subject should first know that they have to honestly represent that which they are debating. They should be proportionate in every area to show due consideration to every sex,colour and creed. Gentlemen, you failed.
    Now let’s vote on it.

    PS next time gentlemen think rather than be ego builder’s

  6. Nicole

    That photo, and your reaction, reminds me of the outcry when a hearing regarding women’s contraception on Capitol Hill (here in the States) was led by an all-male panel.

    Thank you for encouraging and promoting diversity!

  7. Alan Green

    My first comment is on the issue of feminism – I can understand your frustation (even though I am a man), but the 4 organisations sponsoring the event are all chaired by men (which is the greater issue). The talk did not mention the exclusion of women from the panel (although many of the initial interviewee’s were women), however it did briefly mention the perception of heritage as being aristocratic – which I agree with.

    As for the actual debate itself, I felt the 2 most compelling arguements came from Stephen Bayley and John Howell. The National Trust and English Heritage representatives seemed to dwell too much on the idea that government is awful (especially the current one), and the dreadful cuts to local government; I think they have forgotten there is a recession. Their idea that the entire business sector, is only interested in profiteering and have very little interest in heritage; yes, profits come first, but they do have regard for these issues. The most obvious absence (IMO) from the debate was public opinion or the panellists apparent disregard of it. It is after all the public who elect governments, run organisations and pay for all heritage in the UK.
    My biggest rant would be Sir Simon Jenkins statement about the different regions ‘England, Scotland, Wales and London’, my opinion of him dropped severely after that remark.
    IMO for the debate to have any real meaning it needs to be more inclusive (not just of women), but include business interests, the general public, and talk about the country as a whole, not just one city; where the majority of the population do not live.

  8. john harding

    Lucy, spot on. I too am appalled that male, white historians are still seen as the required face of history. As a (retired) professional historian my experience is that a balanced panel with female, ethnic etc participants is vital. Your splendid work over the years (and that of other female historians) is absolute proof that the female input and perspective of history is vital and without it history is incomplete and worse – inaccurate

  9. Cathy Kawalek

    Lucy, thank you for your statements. And per the comments above about women thinking differently, we will never know that if this type of situation continues. Yesterday I found a digital copy of the essay ‘Ought Women to learn the Alphabet’ written in 1859 by one of my favorite ‘feminists’ writers, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Sadly, we are still trying to overcome many of the issues that he raises. How much intellectual capital is lost by not deploying 1/2 the population!

  10. Chris Hough

    While agreeing with your sentiments about the masculine nature of the panel and the need for gender parity I feel constrained to point out that sexism can be a two way street
    . I have spent my working life in a female dominated profession and have the same qualifications for the job as my female colleagues .Yet I still find myself patronised quite openly by some female members of my profession I was recently introduced to an audience as “our token male” by a senior manager
    So by all means let us have full equality but let it be on an equal footing with everybody appreciated for what they can offer not who or what they are

  11. Susie Smith

    “talented, charismatic, well-informed, passionate people” would make me pay attention. Whether some sit down to pee would not. The whinging proposition for the debate would definitely not.

  12. Russell Higgs

    I’m a white male, and in writing this there’s a nagging thought that I’m actually part of the problem, but as an employer I chose the best people I have available to me where and when I need them, I wouldn’t actively search out a variety of genders and ethnicities to either please anybody or tick boxes, and whilst I definitely understand the frustration in seeing an all white-all male panel as you would have in 1953 but also I can see problems with including people because they’re either part of a minority or a specific gender. It works both ways! Perhaps it’s how my mind works but I can’t believe that this panel was assembled by anybody who actively excluded women from it. Then again, I enjoy your program’s (and engage with them) more than with a program with a stuffy old man lecturing me, perhaps you’ve got a point?

  13. Bridget Graham

    The same thing happened at Apollo’s evening of talks ‘Perspectives on the English Country House’ at the NPG in September. The line up was:
    Simon Jenkins, Chairman of the National Trust
    Oscar Humphries, Publisher of Apollo Magazine
    Nicky Haslam, English interior designer
    Robert Sackville-West, on his ancestral home, Knole House
    Professor Maurice Howard, speaking about The Vyne
    Robert O’Byrne, architectural historian and Apollo columnist

    Simon Jenkins advised that the most popular NT houses were those with empty rooms and that people no longer wanted to be told about the contents of those that were furnished as they didn’t want to feel that they were at school. At no point were the words ‘Heritage Lottery Fund’ mentioned – funny that. Well, I think a lot of people do want to be given information when they visit; it might not be in a formal way, but if we don’t talk about the contents and just leave historic room spaces, one day someone will say that the properties themselves are no longer of interest. There’s a vital balance to be maintained between stewardship for the nation and access by its people.


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