Christmas at Chatsworth: how Chatsworth House upends the role of storyteller and story told
Often, the narrative history of heritage assets may seem to cast the object itself as subaltern to the agency of the subject. Such arrangements of power between the storyteller and the story-told are part of a common discourse. It is thus that we see English Heritage promising to ‘tell the story of our changing understanding’ of Stonehenge; whilst the National Trust’s Calke Abbey ‘tells the story of the dramatic decline of a country house’.
Such decentring of narrative authority has rightly been abrogated when it comes to people’s histories, whereby strategies of empowerment help to reclaim the autonomous stories of individuals and communities. Yet the process is more complex when applied to inanimate assets. What agency can an object, building or site obtain?
The annual Christmas trail at Chatsworth House offers a compelling answer, as it authors a story extrinsic to itself. For 2018, favourite childhood stories, from Beatrix Potter to Bagpuss, inhabit the space. Previously, Dickens, the Nutcracker, Alice in Wonderland, Narnia, and more, have done the same. As a new narrative yearly weaves its way through bedchambers, chapels and drawing rooms, the historic seat of the Duke of Devonshire transposes the usual relationship between subject and object. The house itself becomes storyteller, stage and set.
At the intersection of arts and heritage, we regularly talk of a space being animated. This tends to be predicated by context: jousting at a castle, re-enactments at a battlefield. Yet less often do we conceptualise the space as the animator. Even if we accept, for practical purposes, that there is often a perceived fault line at heritage sites between what is history and what is not, it remains true that history never stops, and the asset’s afterlives include its present life. So to avoid being trapped in an endlessly self-reflexive ontology – its present always a mere re-presentation of its past – it is important for historic sites to rediscover the sense of agency that they originally possessed.
This is not to say that narrative history should be derogated. Nor is it to obscure an important frame of reference that says that place can be representative of people – of community and individual narratives with absolute agency. Indeed, there is an intrinsic underpinning to Chatsworth House’s extrinsic 2018 narrative, as the stories were all suggested and inspired by the site’s staff. The experience, then, is at once a tale of tales, and a tale of its present history too.
This tale of two Chatsworths suggests that the virtue of a dual approach is an ability to celebrate the past without mothballing the present. As an event producer for Royal Albert Dock Liverpool, I experience a similar approach at that particular site. At the annual Heritage on the Dock festival, I certainly look to tell the stories – often little-known – of the Dock and the wider waterfront. Yet it is very much an asset and resource for events happening in the here and now: a stage, set and storyteller of multiple narratives, whereby past, present and future are bound by a deeper discourse.