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Tales from the Thames Valley: The University of Oxford and the National Trust

Guest - Tuesday February 23, 2016 10:12
Oxford, courtesyof Oxford University

Oxford, courtesy of University of Oxford

By Oliver Cox

The University of Oxford and the National Trust are working together to create experiences which teach, move and inspire. In the first of a series of blog posts exploring this exciting collaboration, University of Oxford historian and Royal Oak Lecturer Dr Oliver Cox introduces the partnership.

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Oliver Cox

As many Anglophiles readers will know, the city of dreaming spires – Oxford – is encircled by a loose ring of remarkable country houses. Spanning the centuries, and of all different shapes and sizes, and with collections ranging from pieces of internationally significant art through to more humdrum domestic items, the country houses of the Thames Valley collectively tell the story of England. Not to mention the fact that two of the great English sporting events that go to make up ‘The Season’ – Royal Ascot and Henley Royal Regatta – take place annually and keep some of the pomp and ceremony of the past alive in the twenty-first century.

In 2013 I created the Thames Valley Country House Partnership as a way of linking brilliant academic researchers at the University of Oxford with equally brilliant curators and house managers in country houses. We have the shared aim of promoting the best possible research into the things, buildings, people and landscapes that make up the country house. We believe that the archives of country houses and the families that lived in them are key. As storehouses of stories these archives are the most reliable and rewarding way of creating and discovering new narratives to enchant visitors at National Trust (and Historic Houses Association) properties.

The challenge has been to better link the two worlds of academic research and the heritage sector. Over the next few months, I’m delighted that a number of my colleagues at the University of Oxford have agreed to share their experiences of working with the National Trust with Anglophiles readers. What these blog posts reveal is not only the depth of expertise contained within the National Trust, but also the fantastic results that can come from bringing different types of complementary expertise together in a room for the first time.

National Trust curators, house managers and stewards inspired my academic colleagues to think about the way in which their research has the potential to engage beyond the academy: to teach visitors about overlooked aspects of English history; to access the emotional lives of those who lived and loved, thrived and died and so create moving, historically-accurate interpretation; and finally, to inspire visitors – young and old – with a curiosity for the past and a hunger to know more.

Ham House, National Trust

Ham House, National Trust

I will write in March to provide a sneak peak of some of the content for my forthcoming Drue Heinz Trust Lectures in Philadelphia, Boston and New York. This will be followed by a series of posts by my dynamic academic colleagues at the University of Oxford who have worked on particular projects with the National Trust, including: Hazel Tubman and Helena Kaznowska on the Uppark Dolls House; Dr Sandra Mayer on Benjamin Disraeli and Hughenden Manor; Emma Turnbull on the remarkable political history of Ham House (a Royal Oak Favourite!); Emily Knight on Ham’s equally fantastic portraits; Anna Boeles Rowland and Rachel Delman will explore Oxford’s contribution to a major roof restoration project at The Vyne; and Alice Purkiss will introduce Royal Oak readers to an innovative collaboration between the National Trust and the University of Oxford, called TRUSTed Source.

But why does all this matter? Put simply, we’re at a hugely exciting moment in the academic study and popular enjoyment of the country house. We’ve come a long way from that famous ‘Treasure Houses of Britain’ exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. Country houses are no longer fetish objects. They are now seen not only as functioning places of residence, but as a place where a whole range of different types of history took place: local, global, economic, political and cultural. The blog posts over the next few months will bring to light some of these approaches.

I hope you enjoy reading them.

Stay tuned to The AngloFiles for more from the Thames Valley Country House Partnership, including a look inside its many remarkable partner homes!

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