How can we plan and design ethical interpretations of difficult histories and personal experiences?

Today I went to Calke Abbey for a conference run by the National Trust and Leicester University Museum Studies on their new collaboration and exhibition ‘HumanKind‘. To mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Henry Harpur, ‘The Isolated Baronet’, this year at Calke Abbey they’re exploring stories of loneliness and isolation, kindness and compassion, past and present.

Henry Harpur (1763-1819) was gossiped about by his contemporaries for his shyness and was described as suffering from a disease of the mind by diarist Joseph Farrington. The traditional narrative presented in the interpretation at Calke is that Henry shunned social contact and treated his family and others with a lack of care.

It was fascinating to hear about the methodology about how the creative team, researchers, curators and volunteers from the house had gone through primary sources relating to Henry and five other former residents and woven a new tale of loneliness through time. Can a house itself inspire feelings of loneliness through its architecture and spirit of place? Or was this idea of loneliness something that was handed down in the family through generations?

The research that the team did on the stories of Henry Harpur and his ancestors uncovered a more nuances interpretation of their characters and experiences. For example, the real stories of Henry’s life have been overshadowed by the myth and stigma built up around him. This happens frequently when we, in trying to convey a compelling narrative to our audiences about someone’s character, end up caricaturing them into fairy tale stereotypes; the recluse, the villain, the victim, the innocent.

At the same time as raising contemporary issues around loneliness in our society today, this exhibition asks us to think about how we might challenge the emotional history of the individuals we encounter in historic houses.

The exhibition itself is located in the family apartments at Calke, a set of ground floor rooms last lived in by the final member of the family to own the house, and occupied well into the 1960’s. The creative team from the HumanKind project have created a set of six installations in six different spaces in these rooms representing the emotional stories of the former residents. There are also external sculptures placed in the gardens of metal work structures which echo the exact dimensions of the rooms themselves and offer glimpses of the lives of the six residents through symbolism, quotes and imagery, combined with a more social role as somewhere for visitors to sit, meet and talk to one another.

The house itself it quite extraordinary. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The interior of the house, originally built in 1704, is in a state of disrepair and dilapidation and has not been repaired or restored since the 1920’s. The National Trust describes is as an ‘Un-stately’ home.

The Harpur family were a family of incorrigible hoarders and the house is filled with objects; taxidermy, trays of shells, old furniture, books, a crocodile skull, ceramics, swords and bric-a-brac.

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