Time is out of joint at Gainsborough Old Hall, just as it is at antiquated piles across the land. It is a strange kind of tourism, when you think about it.
At most of these venues you’re encouraged to shake off the trappings of your own time at the gates before ‘stepping into history’, as English Heritage would have it on their website. The National Trust are a little more cautious in their offer, inviting visitors to ‘discover the myths and memories’ of their ‘ancient country houses.’ The treasure here is a little more subjective and open to interpretation. They offer an encounter not with history, but historiography; the question of how history has been recorded and represented, rather than the question of history itself.
Such places can never offer us an unmediated vision of history, or even a glimpse into a singular past. They confront us with many, simultaneously. If you’ve ever been on one of the tours you’ll be familiar with the patter: ‘Yes, the house was built in the seventeenth century, but when the Trust acquired it in the twentieth century they stripped off the nineteenth-century wallpaper in this room so that they could restore it to how it might have looked in the eighteenth century. The dresser isn’t from this house, no, it is from another of our properties, but it was moved here to give a better sense of how an eighteenth-century bedroom would look.’
These places inevitably become palimpsests, accreting layers upon layers of lives only complicated further by conservation, restoration and recreation.
The National Trust is wise to frame the tourist’s experience as one of creative interpretation and imaginative reconstruction, rather than a trip to the past. Sustained by an impressive array of external partners, ranging from English Heritage, to West Lindsey District Council, to the War of the Roses Living History Group Lord Burgh Retinue, Gainsborough Old Hall instead doubles down on the promise that visitors will find themselves inside history.
And yet, their recent ‘Hall of Fame’ exhibition stages a playfully self-conscious collapsing of these competing histories, foregrounding the role of fiction and creativity in the delivery of ‘historical’ tourism.
The exhibition brought together several costumes used in high profile period dramas, such as ITV’s 1990s Sharpe films and the BBC’s more recent historical soap opera, Poldark. The costumes are arranged around the house in places and positions where you might expect to find a person from the historical period represented in the drama the costume was used. For instance, the dress worn by Cate Blanchet in Elizabeth stands beside an Elizabethan harpsichord, the costume worn by Helena Bonham Carter in Suffragette sits at an early twentieth-century writing table. The fact that these costumes are themselves historical artefacts from the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s is lost, although intriguingly the information provided pertains exclusively to the careers of the actors who wore the costumes, rather than the costumes themselves or the historical fashions after which they are styled.
The genius of the exhibition only hits once the viewer continues further into the hall and is in each room confronted with more costumes. These recreations have not been made for the screen, but for the house itself. The fact that they are indistinguishable from the props upstairs, however, really hammers home the craft that has gone into their production, not then but now.
Gainsborough Old Hall is not the past, it is a complex and carefully crafted product of the present, and that is perhaps more extraordinary. As Susan Sontag once wrote of the museum as a cultural phenomenon:
There are many places like this one. This could be anyway, though it happens to be here. It will be full of everywhere, but I am entering it here.