About a year ago, in September 2019, I filed the papers to register the British Napoleonic Bicentenary Trust. Little did I know what a bad time it was to set up a heritage charity.
It is difficult to express how much work goes into creating an entirely new charity, recruiting a board, and developing new projects largely from scratch - especially when those projects are on an island as remote as Saint Helena.
That we were able to do so at all was a significant achievement and largely thanks to the generous support of partners providing their services for free – conducting 3D scans of the sites and developing costings and plans.
We had planned to launch the charity in May 2020 but with the emergence of the Coronavirus pandemic it quickly became clear that was not going to be possible. At just the moment we hoped to announce our plans, we instead had to regroup and reconsider what was feasible in a world with new priorities.
The heritage sector has been hit hard by Coronavirus. While DCMS has made a heroic commitment of £1.5bn to try and safeguard the sector, this money is understandably routed towards established charities whose existing sources of income have dried up.
There is no support for new heritage charities without established income streams. This has compounded the obvious issues a new charity would face in building support from scratch in any circumstances.
But there are also particular issues we face. Firstly, there is very limited support for the heritage of the Overseas Territories, which is not funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, or the vast majority of heritage grant-makers.
Secondly, the questions that we were already asking were now magnified by covid: Does anyone care about Napoleon in 2020? How much are people interested in a remote island in the mid-Atlantic? Essentially, we had to confront the question of whether people would continue to care about ‘history’ – of buildings, peoples, ideas - when the present is conspicuously historic, and contains an existential threat.
It is perhaps unsurprising in this context that at one point the whole bicentenary was threatened with cancellation. But what has caused us to persist is the fact that our work has always been about much more than just Napoleon.
To paraphrase Peter Ainsworth, chair of the Heritage Alliance, it is about much more than just preserving ‘old stuff’. From the outset, we have wanted to tell the story of Napoleon on Saint Helena from as many angles as possible. This will include bringing the well-established narrative to people who have not heard that story before, but also bringing out new strands to the story.
There remain many questions for us to unravel. How do we tell the story of Napoleon on Saint Helena from as many perspectives as possible without ‘taking sides’? How do we include slavery in that – giving it due prominence and nuance. How do we fill the blanks to give voice to those individuals for whom there are no personal testimonies?
As a charity, we have no ‘editorial line’. There are people working on the bicentenary who frankly despise Napoleon. There are others who passionately defend his legacy. All are united by recognising the importance of considering the significance of his death, shedding light on some new perspectives, and preserving heritage which might otherwise be lost forever.
There are as many angles on Napoleon as there are supposed locks of his hair and fragments of the tomb scattered around the world. We can only present them, hope that you find the exchange of ideas interesting, and are motivated in turn to support the interpretation and preservation of the heritage of the island to continue facilitating that debate.
In that vein, our first online panel discussion will be on them 29th October and will be ‘a tour of St Helena – in Napoleon’s Footsteps’. It will enable us to showcase the work that has already been done to produce incredibly detailed 3D scans of the sites. The Oxford XR hub will explain how such processes have revolutionised the preservation and study of heritage – and explain how we will utilise this technology to bring alive Toby’s Cottage.
Much more is to follow. We will be announcing further events, approximately one a month, between now and May. At this stage though – with much still to do – I am delighted with the progress we have made in exceptional circumstances, with limited resources. Please do not hesitate to get in contact with me directly if you think you might be able to help, and please do share our social media content, website etc.
Thank you for your support,