'Jewish' country houses - objects, networks, people

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: History Faculty

Abstract

As a pan-European study of 'Jewish' country houses this is a pioneering research endeavour. We aim to establish 'Jewish' country houses - properties that were owned, built or renewed by Jews - as a focus for research, a site of European memory and a significant aspect of European Jewish heritage and material culture.

The central place of the country house in our national heritage landscape speaks to its importance in the construction of nationhood, a phenomenon with parallels in other European countries. Work on Jewish elites too has operated within a nation-state framework, elaborating paradigms that emphasize national distinctiveness. This project will be the first to illuminate the cosmopolitan world of the 'Jewish aristocracy', its relationships, its architecture and its things, showing how this international network reshaped 'Jewish' and 'European' culture and society.

'Jewish' country houses and their owners have escaped systematic study because they do not fit established conceptual frameworks in country house studies or in modern Jewish history. Yet 'Jewish' country houses - often clustered within easy reach of capital cities or near exclusive seaside and spa resorts - were ubiquitous across Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. Far from seeking to establish a fixed typology of 'Jewish' country houses, we will explore the many variants that proliferated across Europe from the second half of the nineteenth century, and the social, political, cultural and familiar relationships that underpinned them.

Individually and collectively, these houses represent the summit and terminus of the growth in Jewish private wealth and Jewish artistic expertise in this era. The project will investigate this phenomenon through two complementary research strands: socio-cultural (focusing on collecting) and socio-political (focusing on philanthropy). Our focus on the social and political role of Jewish elites in the countryside works against the grain of existing work on Jewish elites which has an urban, bourgeois focus. It promises to reshape the way we think about assimilation, acculturation, integration and difference. We also break fresh methodological ground by uniting into a single analytical framework all the actors involved in the creation, maintenance and decoration of the Jewish country house, creating a bridge between social history, architectural history, the material and intellectual histories of collecting, and the history of the art market.

Working closely with the National Trust and the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage, and with relevant properties like Waddesdon Manor and Strawberry Hill House, we will transform practice in the heritage sector by developing an intellectual framework and practical resources that will outlive the project to enable heritage professionals in the UK and continental Europe to better engage the 'Jewishness' of these country houses and their often contested history.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit?
1. Managers, curators and staff working in 7 key exemplar properties in the UK owned by different organisations (Hughenden, Monk's House, Mottisfont Abbey, Nymans, Strawberry Hill, Waddesdon, Upton).
2. Managers, curators and staff working in the UK heritage sector in the National Trust (NT), and in independent museums like Bletchley Park, Trent Park.
3. Managers, curators and staff working in 'Jewish country houses' in continental Europe, and in the European heritage and Jewish heritage sectors.
4. Volunteers and community groups, particularly in the UK.
5. Tourists with an interest in Jewish heritage, and Jewish community groups.
6. Visitors, schools and members of the general public in the UK.
7. Visitors and members of the general public in other European countries.

How will they benefit?

This research will significantly add to the understanding of Jewish minority heritage in the UK and Europe, increase awareness of connections between 'Jewish' country houses in the UK and continental Europe and fostering relevant heritage relationships across Europe.

The research will inform heritage managers and curators by creating a paradigm of 'best practice' derived from project work at 7 exemplar properties in the UK, with clear practical outcomes and benefits in the everyday practice of interpretation, evaluating significance, audience engagement and conservation.

Heritage staff and volunteers working in these 7 key properties will be trained and develop skills relevant to ensuring the tangible and intangible Jewish heritage of these properties is better looked after, managed, understood and shared.
Formal and informal partnerships with the NT, the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture (AEPJ), and the Centre des Monuments Nationaux will ensure this research is widely disseminated in the heritage sector.

The AEPJ website will provide practical support to properties across Europe, highlighting their Jewish heritage, facilitating connections between them and disseminating the research.

The project will help the NT deliver key ambitions in its research strategy: pioneering the exploration of a national research theme across multiple sites; unearthing new/ untold stories for the benefit of visitors; ensuring NT properties contribute to an understanding of the wider national and international context, remaining dynamic, creative and relevant.

Poorly-resourced properties like Salomons Estate, and community groups like the Worth Park History Group, will benefit from integration into an established support framework of heritage professionals, and from a platform to promote their activities.

The Jewish stories associated with country houses will be better identified, recorded and understood, so their Jewish dimensions are better interpreted and explained. The project may identify new connections between houses, or new sources of information about them.

Visitors to the properties will learn about Jewish heritage in an unexpected context in ways that will change their attitudes/behaviour towards Jewish heritage.

A mobile exhibition will disseminate the research to a more socially and geographically diverse UK audience, with the potential for further exhibitions, for instance at Strawberry Hill, and the Jewish Museum Berlin. A 'crossover' book will be on sale in gift shops.

More people, and a wider range of people will have engaged with Jewish heritage. This will have clear social and cultural benefits: the 2003 English Heritage Outreach Strategy document confirms that reclaiming marginalised narratives, like the Jewish stories associated with these properties, enhances social cohesion. Jewish community groups, and society in general, will benefit.

There will be further social and cultural benefits, not just in relation to the management of Jewish heritage, but to the wider understanding and management of minority or marginalised heritages.

Publications

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