The National Trust flexes its mansion offer
The National Trust, unsurprisingly, has had a bad year. An honest statement of how the fulfilment of its duty to preserve places of historical interest and beauty has come under great pressure might have persuaded many of its members to double their subscriptions – especially if the Trust were to abandon some of its more extravagant and sillier initiatives. But the PowerPoint presentation entitled ‘Towards a Ten-Year Vision for Places and Experiences’, written by the director of visitor experience and leaked last month, must have left many people feeling that further support for the organisation should be conditional on the removal from office of those in the executive who endorsed such a document.
The director-general now claims that it was merely an ‘internal draft’ discussion paper. Strange, then, that it nowhere describes itself as such. Strange, too, that it was followed by redundancy notices informing hundreds of staff on furlough that their jobs have been ‘stopped’. These redundancies are made in accordance with a ‘reset’ of the organisation (described in another leaked document), consistent with the ideas outlined in the ‘ten-year vision’.
The most remarkable features of the ‘vision’, apart from a failure to mention the original purpose of the National Trust and the reasons for more than a century of bequests to it, are an insulting assessment of its public, a blithe confidence in its powers of clairvoyance, and a slick, obfuscatory jargon. The text is so far removed from the language of the people whose interests it purports to represent that it cannot even use the term ‘country house’. Instead we read about ‘mansions’: the trust must ‘flex its mansion-offer to create more active, fun and useful experiences that our audiences will be looking for in the future’. It is urgent to ‘re-purpose’ interiors and many of the contents must therefore be put into storage – all this in the ‘service of local audiences’, as if the regional public couldn’t possibly enjoy old interiors or works of art, especially not in any quantity.
The nature of the projected ‘active, fun and useful’ experiences is not clear, and the uninitiated cannot yet know what ‘the delivery of the core engagement across multiple channels’ entails. There is some precision, however: ‘Everywhere . . . we will move away from our narrow focus on family and art history.’ To what? ‘To explore the wider stories, from archaeology and local communities to colonial links and social history.’ As if family historians had ignored the source of their subjects’ wealth, or the possible foundations of a Roman fort were inherently more exciting than an Elizabethan hall or a Victorian drawing-room.
The ‘vision’ seems to have been written by someone with a prejudice against the curators currently employed by the trust. There is a strong emphasis on the desirability of partnerships but no mention of the research already being undertaken by curators together with schools and universities. It is stated, without any evidence, that the number of visitors to country houses, and the volunteers helping to keep them open, ‘will dwindle’. The curator of world art remains. A curator of repurposing historic houses will be appointed. But there is to be no specialist curator looking after one of the greatest collections of furniture in the world; no specialist curator responsible for one of the greatest collections of Old Master paintings in the country; no curator with a special knowledge of portraiture.
Those of us who love the bluebell wood or the herbaceous border surely don’t object to others admiring the four-poster in the state bedroom or the mangles in the capacious laundry, but there is a long history of rivalry between the Trust’s different sections. At the moment, rangers are no doubt more in favour than those who concern themselves with the more than 100 accredited museums in the Trust’s care. But that cannot explain the ‘ten-year vision’. It seems more likely that the highly paid directors of visitor experience, of culture and engagement, of welcome and well-being, and of course of marketing, would rather be rid of the troublesome experts who actually know about the history and character of what the visitors wish to see and are keen to study. Plans to stifle and marginalise such experts are not new but Covid-19 has provided the perfect cover to get rid of them.
There must have been a faction within the National Trust that saw the need to continue the study of its collections and improve the ways in which knowledge was made available to the public. It was, after all, only a couple of years ago that research was funded to compensate for the consequences of an imprudent policy of regional autonomy that left many houses in the care of managers ignorant of their contents. This faction must have been silenced; hope now, if there is any, lies with the trustees.