Given that the National Trust had 26.6 million visitors in 2017, the way in which they represent the lives of the houses’ inhabitants is crucial for shaping public perceptions about British history. Emma Turnbull’s KE project aimed to transform the way that historical women are represented in National Trust properties. She focused on three women: Katherine and Elizabeth Murray of Ham House in Richmond, and Lady Mary Bankes of Corfe Castle in Dorset.
‘Each of these women has an engaging story of political action and bravery during the Civil War’, she writes. ‘But I found that there was a timidity around the existing interpretation at these properties, which tended to domesticate these women’s activities, or simply ignore them.’ Working with the National Trust for two years, Emma’s research informed new tours, display panels, and exhibitions at the partner properties. She also gave training to volunteers, to help the project have lasting impact by informing volunteers to be able to share this knowledge with the properties’ visitors. She found that by providing volunteers with accessible material that told a strong narrative about the women involved, she was able to boost their confidence talking about these women’s lives.
Emma writes: ‘I have succeeded in instigating a future change in the teams I have collaborated with… My partners are now much more open to working with researchers to tell bold, challenging historical stories, and are prepared to engage with experts not simply as purveyors of facts but as specialists in ideas, context and argument.’ Over the course of the two-year Fellowship, Emma produced content for the National Trust across various platforms. She gave public lectures, wrote an article on Elizabeth Murray for the National Trust’s Trusted Source website (2,281 views, 1,723 unique visitors), and produced six video blogs about suffragettes as part of TORCH’s 2018 women’s suffrage centenary celebrations.
This work inspired her to engage in public engagement activities beyond the National Trust, and in 2017 she held an object-handling session on ‘Living through Conflict’ at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, as part of the Being Human Festival. Emma also dedicated some of her Fellowship output to facilitating others to engage in Knowledge Exchange projects. In 2017 she organised a one-day workshop for academics and heritage organisations, designed to encourage interaction between them.
Of those who attended, 100% said that they felt more knowledgeable and confident about KE activities and participating in them. However, by holding this workshop Emma was able to identify an avenue for further training — only a third of respondents said that they would be extremely confident leading such a project, suggesting that more extensive training for academics might increase the quantity of Knowledge Exchange projects, and prepare academics better for the potential challenges that these projects might present.
Since the close of the Fellowship, Emma has continued to work with the heritage sector. She is currently collaborating on a £20,000 project at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, that interrogates the perception of Bess Hardwick as ‘a proud and ambitious shrew’. Entitled ‘We Are Bess’, the exhibition includes a video featuring Emma, public historian Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, and Dr Nigel Wright, the House and Collections Manager. It also showcases the stories of six modern women, asking them to respond to Bess’s life and reflect on the parallels between her life and their own.
At the end of her own project, Emma writes ‘I would strongly encourage other early career researchers to get involved in public engagement. This Fellowship has helped me to engage members of the public in conversation about big historical themes, and help them build connections between their lives and the lives of people in the seventeenth century. There is a quality of engagement in these interactions that I found immensely satisfying, and has helped me to clarify my own future research plans.’
Knowledge Exchange Fellowships Brochure