Friday, March 02, 2018

The politics of ostentation and acquisition

As impressive as Kedleston Hall was when we paid a very enjoyable first visit on Sunday (and it certainly was impressive, on an icily cold but beautifully blue-skied day), we left with two nagging thoughts.

The first was that all we got to see was the glitzy decadence of the faux-classical house: a sort of eighteenth-century playboy mansion set in immaculately landscaped grounds, all deliberately designed to dazzle. It was all about the glorification of the great and the good; there was no opportunity to go below stairs and see how the staff lived. This is something for which people often criticise the National Trust, and in fairness the organisation is generally getting better at recognising the existence of everyone who lived at such houses, not just those who owned them - take Tredegar House in Newport, for instance, somewhere else that we've recently visited. But at Kedleston Hall you're simply expected to admire the conspicuous symbols of the Curzon family's fabulous wealth.

Second, on a related note, the source of that wealth is barely alluded to. Given the prominent exhibition of artefacts from India, for instance, you would expect at very least some effort to explain what being the Viceroy of India (a position held by George Curzon from 1899 to 1905) actually involved. You might also expect some acknowledgement of the extent of the British "influence" in India - one that involved draining a vast amount of riches from the country over the period of colonial rule. Instead, the word "acquired" is used on labels repeatedly and euphemistically. Of course, the fact that the family are still in residence probably explains the silence on such things - but it does make admiring the hoard a rather more uncomfortable experience.

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