Monday 4 July 2016

Penrhyn Castle and the Problem with Material Culture

Penrhyn Castle

Since the beginning of the year, I've been making an effort to travel to places that aren't that far away yet I've never actually visited. Therefore, I've accumulated quite a collection of snaps that I'm intending to share here at some point, and I was going to do so in date order because I'm a bit of a stickler for chronological order. However today I'm going to talk about a more recent trip to Penrhyn Castle in Bangor, North Wales. This one is playing heavy on my mind at the moment, particularly because I went the day after 'b-day' and I was naturally feeling devastated by the result, and also troubled about the future of the UK.

Brexit day itself was a complete write off for me, and I just resigned myself to pootling around town as I had to get out of the house. It was strangely quiet. Perhaps Probably because of the pouring rain, but I dunno, I just thought that there would be a more celebratory air from those who voted for this to happen. As it was, the mood was decidedly stale, and it seemed like most people didn't really know how to react to the news.

Penrhyn Castle

You're probably wondering how I'm going to tie my thoughts on brexit in with these photos from Penrhyn Castle, but it definitely impacted my visit as it weighed heavy on my mind. One thing which has surprised me and comforted me in equal measures is how many people are talking about it, not only on social media but on blogs too, and I think it's great how many people are willing to write about their feelings on brexit rather than try to carry on with outfit//lifestyle//normal posts without acknowledging the impact it had. So thanks fellow bloggers. It comforts me a little to think that people aren't just going to stay silent about the issues that have now arisen.

So, Penrhyn Castle.

As I walked around Penrhyn Castle, I heard several gasps from visitors and more than a few people exclaiming that it was one of the most impressive National Trust properties they'd ever visited. It's pretty hard to disagree with them too; although by definition not a 'real' castle the decadent plasterwork, high ceilings, and lavish furniture and decor certainly make the property visually stunning. These photos actually do it little justice.

Penrhyn Castle

I probably would have given little more thought to the decadence of Penrhyn Castle had one of the stewards not remarked to me that the wealth which allowed the property to be built and decorated came from sugar. Or put more bluntly the slave trade. From that point onwards, I couldn't really celebrate the architecture, four poster beds, or vaulted ceilings in the same way. They all just seemed to be a symbol of British Imperialism that shouldn't quite be celebrated in the way in which I think a lot of visitors were.

It's not that I think Penrhyn Castle and other properties of its type should be pulled down, or left to decay. Not at all. I just wish that the National Trust would make it clearer of the origins of the wealth, and the not-so-rose-tinted side to our history. Aside from the remark by the steward, I found no other information throughout my visit which might have informed me of the more sinister history connected to Penrhyn Castle. It's a real shame, because instead of using this opportunity to explore the more difficult side of our history, and to allow visitors to think about the consequences of our nation's chequered past, it seemed like anything which didn't conform to the 'National Trust Experience' was swept aside.

Penrhyn Castle

The problem with not just the National Trust, but material culture as a whole is that unless it is displayed in a way which gives the viewer the relevant social information about the object or place, it can become more about the object itself than about history. My visit to Penrhyn Castle definitely made me aware of this, and as I walked from room to room, I found myself wanting to do more than admire the handpainted wallpaper, gasp at the gilded bedframes, and wander up staircases so richly decorated with plasterwork it felt like walking up a wedding cake. I wanted to be challenged. Instead it was very much a run of the mill National Trust; a safe, rose-tinted view of our history, before being led to the cafe, the second hand book shop, and the overpriced gift shop. I just felt like any opportunity to think about the consequences of this wealth hadn't been explored in any way at all.

Perhaps it's different if you live in more diverse areas of the country, or with National Trust properties that are about the very nature of our nation's chequered past, but where I'm from it can certainly feel like National Trust properties (or same such stately homes) are an experience for the white middle classes to marvel at the wealth of the past upper classes. And I just feel like this can't be healthy, especially after some of the acts of shocking xenophobia (and straight out racism) now taking place across the country.

Penrhyn Castle

It can be done. We can celebrate our past in a way which doesn't gloss coat everything, or focus only on the lives of the white middle classes of the time. I saw an interesting documentary about the curating of the new wing of the Tate in London recently. It was interesting to see how, rather than placing artworks together based on the artist, time period, or place of origin, they were exhibited together based on the themes and ideas they dealt with. It was joyous to see works of different natures and different origins exhibited right next to each other, and in an institute with a high range of work from non-Western cultures (and by women too!). Of course, the Tate is controversial in its own ways, but I feel like these steps towards a more inclusive and diverse museum and art gallery display can only be a good thing. Especially now.

Penrhyn Castle

Thanks if you made it to the end of this post, I feel like I certainly rambled on a little too much. But I want to say that my problem isn't with people celebrating our past, or visiting these sights, but rather with the way they are displayed to the public. I'm conflicted because I do obviously recommend visiting Penrhyn Castle if you're in the area, but I just wish it didn't rose-tint our imperial past. I guess brexit has left me feeling very conflicted about a lot of things, and I'm not feeling particularly patriotic at the moment.

Thanks again, and I hope you all have a good week.


  1. Honestly one of the best blogposts I've read in a while! I love how you found a way of writing about something very current, and very needed in light of recent events and just society in general, with your day out to a castle! I love a good day out, and have also been to NT places recently, but never really thought about the history of the wealth before. Thank you for reminding me to take off my rosy tinted glasses :)

    1. Thanks so much for your comment Phillipa, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I don't think I perhaps would have felt so strongly about Penrhyn Castle had I not visited the day after brexit, but in a way I'm glad I visited then because it gave me a different view of things.