An English Heritage exhibition on “Englishness” held at a stately Bedfordshire home was the target of a racist attack following tensions over the charity’s role as custodian of the UK’s architectural legacy.
The exhibition at Wrest Park opened on 5 August and saw four young photographers – three of them people of colour – reimagine the idea of Englishness at heritage sites across the country, as part of its England’s New Lenses exhibition. It included prints exploring the lives of black British people since the arrival of the Windrush and the presence of north African Romans at Hadrian’s Wall.
But in the early morning of Saturday 14 August, two prints by Kemka Ajoku were defaced with a sharp object and the ‘n’ word was scrawled on the face of a black model.
English Heritage filed a police report days later, on 18 August, but did not make details of the incident public. In a statement Bedfordshire police said: “We received a report of racially aggravated criminal damage at Wrest Park in Silsoe that is believed to have occurred on either 13 or 14 August.
“Officers carried out inquiries and our hate crime team attended to speak with the people at the location. The local community policing team have also been made aware for ongoing work with the venue.
“The investigation has been closed pending further information coming to light.”
A spokesperson for English Heritage said: “On the morning of Saturday 14 August, our team at Wrest Park discovered damage to an exhibition in the grounds, which had taken place overnight. We took urgent action to replace the relevant exhibition panels and worked with Bedfordshire police to conduct a full investigation.
“We were appalled by this incident, and our public response has been and continues to be in consultation with the artist.”
The attack was not an isolated incident. English Heritage’s Facebook page has also been a hotbed of “anti-woke” rhetoric, with the exhibition, which aims to “challenge the definition of heritage”, the target of a number of racially prejudiced comments.
The young photographers who took part were also personally targeted on social media.
A contributor commented: “Why are you trying to shove this nonsense down everyone’s throats? The more you do this, the more shite you will get in the comments. You’re supposed to be an apolitical organization promoting culture, not the bunch of woke apparatchiks.”
On the organisation’s Facebook page, another added: “Well I was going to join English Heritage having left the NT [National Trust] due to the leftwing virtue signalling, but sorry this has definitely made my mind up.
“I will not plough money into this politics. Shame on you ‘English’ haha Heritage.” In response, English Heritage wrote below the initial post: “On this post we’ve seen some comments that we consider to be offensive or discriminatory. In the interests of our whole community, these comments will not be tolerated and we will take any steps that we feel are appropriate.”
News of the incident comes amid growing discussion of the role of British institutions in slavery and colonialism. This has seen increasing scrutiny fall on English Heritage, as well as the National Trust, both from anti-racist campaigners and from others who say they favour a more traditional approach to heritage, such as Sir John Hayes, the chair of the Common Sense Group of Conservative MPs.
He has has railed against heritage organisations, as part of a campaign to push the government in a more hardline direction on a range of “culture war” issues.
In November 2020 Hayes told the Commons that “defending our history and heritage is our era’s Battle of Britain”.