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English Heritage reaches new audiences with Warwick School of Modern Languages and Cultures

Using archival research to bring English Heritage stories to life

Since 2013 English Heritage at Porchester Castle has collaborated with Professor Kate Astbury as part of its audience development strategy. The partnership used her research into Napoleonic prisoner-of-war theatre as a springboard for artists to tell the story of the castle in engaging ways – through theatre, sound installations, film and photography. The project reached international audiences and engaged them with research-based interpretation focusing on how 2,000 free black French soldiers, women and children from the Caribbean were held as prisoners of war at the castle.

Reinterpreting research at Porchester Castle

Early in the partnership, one of Professor Astbury’s PhD students uncovered archive documents in the Victoria and Albert Museum about the prisoner-of-war theatre. This sparked a creative evolution of the research that shaped the re-interpretation of the Castle keep. Subsequently the research team worked on documents that revealed an unsuspected link between French prisoners-of-war at Portchester and the Revolution in the Caribbean. Napoleonic prisoners at Portchester had performed a play about the Haitian revolution at the same site that imprisoned black Caribbean prisoners-of-war and their families had been held a few years earlier.

This neat dovetailing and innovating of English Heritage interpretation with primary academic research allowed Professor Astbury to deepen her understanding of the site. This has led her research, about early 19th-century Parisian theatre, towards a new strand on inter-island interactions in the Lesser Antilles. At Porchester Castle it has inspired creative dissemination of stories that underpin English Heritage interpretation and educational resources, which is attracting and diversifying its members and visitors and inspiring new collaborations with charities, such as the National Youth Theatre and Photoworks.

A high impact partnership model

This University-charity partnership has brought additional funding to the project, not open to English Heritage, which has extended and deepened the research. English Heritage are now actively seeking to replicate this partnership model on other projects, as the benefits of having in-depth, cutting-edge research about a site, opens new possibilities. By introducing new angles for interpretation, it enables people to discover, engage and learn about the past through creativity. The next step for this partnership is to co-fund a new PhD student who will lead training for Portchester site staff and develop further exhibition material and outreach activities.

The Porchester Castle legacy

Curated by Professor Astbury’s current PhD student, Portchester unveiled the UK’s first permanent exhibition on Black History in 2017. This was followed by a temporary sound installation by renowned Black sound artist Elaine Mitchener, commissioned by the University to give a voice to the prisoners-of-war from the Caribbean. This reached a national audience through the award-winning Speaking with Shadows podcast series, inspiring conversations between English Heritage’s Shout Out Loud Youth Engagement programme and the National Youth Theatre. Their production, The Ancestors, about the women and children who travelled to Porchester alongside the revolutionaries forced to surrender to the British, drew live and global online audiences through its beauty and power.

“The collaboration with Professor Astbury has helped English Heritage open up the histories of Portchester Castle in new ways – not only through the traditional forms of interpretation (which her work has informed and supported), but also through art, digital platforms, learning, and performance. As an organisation dedicated to ‘bringing history to life’, the importance of demonstrating the role of non-white people in shaping ‘England’s Story’ cannot be understated. The rich historical record from which English Heritage has been able to draw is largely down to the research of Professor Astbury.”

Dr Dominique Bouchard, Head of interpretation and learning, English Heritage

Interested in partnering with the University of Warwick?