In this blog series, we'll be interviewing some familiar faces around Gunnersbury. Next up is James Knowles, the new Chair of the Trustees.
Professor James Knowles, the recently appointed Chair of the Board of Trustees at Gunnersbury, is fascinated by the human stories to be found in history and he’s passionate about education in its broadest, most holistic sense. As well as his work here at Gunnersbury, he is Vice-Chancellor of Solent University, Southampton.
Why did you want to take up the role of chair of trustees at Gunnersbury?
I’ve lived in West London for some time, and I’ve been interested in a number of the historic families who lived around here. Gunnersbury appealed particularly because of its vibrant and diverse history but also because it has been owned by people who have often suffered discrimination, while the museum collection encompasses the histories of our very diverse community. For me Gunnersbury’s museum and landscape encapsulates its people, and our history should be about identifying those human stories and telling them to modern audiences. I want to talk about the story of the Rothschilds but also the history of their servants and wider community, as well as the local tradespeople and others who supported them here at Gunnersbury.
Tell us a bit about your background and your passions.
My professional work has been very much focussed on literature and history, especially Britain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A lot of the work I’ve done has been about bringing our complex and diverse heritages alive for people – I believe that’s what good teaching and research does. It’s a family tradition. My father was an engineer, and he was fascinated by industrial archaeology, so I was dragged around coal tips, blast furnaces, and iron works as a child. My mother was interested in social history and women’s rights, so I grew up with a very strong sense of the different aspects of history and the stories and voices that were hidden or marginalised. Both had experienced history: my mother was working in Geneva at the time of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, while my father witnessed American race riots first hand while working in the merchant navy.
In my own research I’ve looked not just at aristocrats but at the people who made objects and artifacts for them. For instance, I’ve researched a kind of 17th-century drama, called a court masque, which is a bit like an opera. Performed by aristocrats in front of the royal court, masques were vast productions and producing them required an army of set builders, scene painters, costume designers and makers, and even shoemakers, as well as musicians, dancers, and actors. I wanted to know who these people were so that I could construct an alternative history with a focus on them.
How do you see your role? What’s your vision for Gunnersbury?
As an educationalist, I believe that people’s lives are enriched by learning about the world around them, both in the past and now,. and by knowing the history of those who went before them as well as having an understanding of what it felt like to be that person. At Gunnersbury, we support around 12,500 learners every year through our programmes and we have Capel Manor College as an onsite partner. With our on-site gym, health studios and the football pitches that are used by University of West London and Brentford Football Community Sports Trust, the whole of Gunnersbury is an education space
Do you think that people’s attitudes towards education and their idea of what it means has changed since Covid and lockdown?
Absolutely. Covid has forced us all to think: what is education for and how do we do it well? I believe that education isn’t just about stuffing people with facts. You have to put our past and current lives into context. You can talk about the history of Princess Amelia for instance, daughter of George II, who owned the park in the 18th century, or you can discuss the amazing biodiversity we have here, but you need to think about how these facts and ideas relate to the people who are visiting the place.
As a result of the pandemic, we learned to look holistically at our lives: Gunnersbury’s aim as a place of education should be about considering the whole self. We know more about the connection between physical and mental health, for instance, and the benefit of getting out into the natural world. That’s something that we could develop over the next 10 years or so. We’ve got a community gardens which can be used to teach people about food and nutrition. More and more parks are being seen as essential for creating a happy and healthy population.
What changes might we see around the park during your time as chair of trustees?
A lot of the development has been carried out around the north-east corner, by the main entrance. But now the question is what can we do across the rest of the park? In the south-west section near Potomac Lake, we’ve got the new marsh and drainage system and the beautiful old woodland. So we’re now having conversations with people about creating a nature reserve or restoring the Potomac lake and folly, that curious, ruined tower near the lake.
One of the things we’d like to do with the stable block, for instance, is to redevelop it and use it as a centre for endangered crafts. Finding a craftsperson to do the lead flashing for a historic roof isn’t easy these days – it’s an incredible skill. There’s also a need for people who can produce hand-built windows or traditional external plasterwork. We need to support these skills and safeguard them for the future. And that takes us back to my point about thinking about the people who literally made our history.
So many different people use the park for different activities – you’ve got to balance various different interests, haven’t you?
Yes, I’m very much aware of that. The Gunnersbury team and the previous board did an amazing job getting the park and museum to its current state, including winning recognition from the Arts Council. The diversity of the new board of trustees will help, I think. We’ve been recruiting people from different ethnicities, many from the local area, with a greater age range and more diverse backgrounds, but all with outstanding professional skills. They will be a wonderful team to take Gunnersbury forward as we celebrate our centenary as a public space in 2026.
When I said that I was applying for the job some people warned me that it would be very complicated because of all the various interwoven histories and present-day demands – but that’s exactly what I wanted – and its why Gunnersbury is such a meaningful and magical place.
We need to think about Gunnersbury today and how it can respond to these different groups even when there are occasional tensions. As well as balancing the different users and needs within our community, our other big challenge is sustainability – how we improve the park today but then hand it on to the next generation. I see my role as a steward, working with the community and the trustees to provide that solid foundation as well as a vision for the future that speaks to everyone who visits Gunnersbury.