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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Yet more thoughts on the National Trust

Rupert Christiansen the Daily Telegraph's excellent Opera critic has written an interesting piece about the National Trust.

I advise you to read it before moving on.

I think Christiansen's complaint is that the Trust is trying to become less elitist and is less concerened with historical or aestethic sensitivies and is more concerned with a "families first" visitors experience. e.g.

the jolly popular but totally inappropriate bean bags that have been dumped in Ickworth's Georgian library and any number of other comparably vulgar and silly stunts dreamed up in the name of the "visitor experience".
Given I've been to Ickworth innumerable you would think I'd have a view on the bean bags but it is a few years since I've been in the house so can't comment (there is a pic at the top of the article). I did come across some cushions at Wimpole which were there so you could lay on the floor and get a better view. The elderly room steward was keen as it "really enhanced the experience".

I think he has a point though. The Trust at times runs a fine line in defining what the purpose of a property is. Let me give an example. What is Hatfield Forest for? What is its purpose? It is used to farm livestock it is an important area for wildlife but the Trust encourages greater participation through boating on the lake (yes this is a hobby horse of mine as they will never convince me that this really can co-exist with the breeding waterfowl on the lake - sorry guys you won't) and now "park run" where groups of people go for a run. I'm sure the Trust will argue that all this is done in defined areas but to me these kill the atmosphere of  the place.

To be fair I've been visiting places like Blickling Hall for years and I don't really see any major changes, there are differences in presentation over the years but it all seems very familiar.

Of course properties are different and I will admit I feel less comfortable at some than at others. Cliveden with its hotel really didn't feel very National Trust like and I felt the same about Waddesdon Manor (not been for a while to be fair). I didn't get a sense of intimacy and it did feel more like a "visitor attraction".

Many complain that the trust is gaining a theme park mentality. I'm not sure I'd agree with that BUT this may be true of certain properties. To be fair private ownership is hardly less likely to do this. Longleat is horrible but at least Woburn has kept the house discrete from the widlife park or it had in my last visit.   

Christiansen himself decried the loss of influence of curators, scholars and historians with the power going to property managers with a drive to abolish elitism and drive the visitor experience making everything more accessible thus

 the "visitor experience" of shop, cafĂ©, loos, car parks and fun for all the family, banishing the dark spectre of "elitism" and making everything ever more "accessible", has become its religion,  superseding a basic respect for the integrity and dignity of what it is charged with conserving and cherishing.
He accepts that commercial success is probably necessary but not at the cost of dumbing down to the level of a theme park. Although I agree with his point I don't particularly understand it with regards the Trust and would welcome some examples (other than the Ickworth bean bags). The problem the Trust faces is that conservation is expensive and this demands money. I haven't really seen much difference in the visitor experience of many Trust properties over the years, there are some exceptions some of which I've mentioned. There are more car parking spaces (needed in many places), loos and shops and cafe's. Indeed none of those are things you wouldn't find in ANY private house open to the public these days. Perhaps he objects to "fun for all the family" which in many properties is a quiz. It would be fair to say that at school holidays the trusts will run events tailored to families. I can understand why they do this even if at times I wish they wouldn't. In fairness I feel for the parent who wants to enjoy some beautiful art but knows that their children would rather be ANYWHERE else and has the job of entertaining them. That's not to say I haven't wished for a few families not to be there spoiling my peace and quiet over the years ! 

I will admit one area the Trust has dumbed down is the guide books, years ago there were a few black & white pictures and lots of dense and worthy text. Today these are much more "approachable". The text is more readable and lots of colour photos.... yes they are more souvenir's but are still worth reading.

It was interesting reading the comments from readers about art installations etc. I got the feeling that to be many people conservation is about no change which is pretty daft. If we had no change many of the buildings we know and love today would not exist as they have evolved under the families who owned them. There have always been times when a piece of art would have been regarded as "inappropriate". There are some "interesting" ones about and many of them in private hands. e.g. Houghton Hall, lovely house and collection but the modern art installations were described by a colleague as "an acquired taste".

Christiansen criticises current NT director Dame Helen Ghosh for recently commenting "There is so much stuff in the big grand houses" and decries her attitude to the historic properties that are the Trust's core vision. Actually are the big grand houses the Trust's core mission? Actually I don't think they ever were. They've just acquired so many that they've become what we (and yes I include myself) think of the Trust for. I don't think that was what Octavia Hill had in mind. The trust has acquired so much "stuff" over the year whether it be houses, farms, coast as to  be incredibly diverse, a point Christiansen acknowledges. There may be a valid point that it is now too diverse.

Curiously Christiansen praises 575 Wandsworth Road in South London which I've never visited (which is surprising given I've been to over 160 properties - not counting countryside), something I ought to rectify.In some respects what the trust does best is the small properties. They are never going to attract lots of people so they have to appeal to a niche audience. If I'm honest it is the smaller properties I love in the sense I suspect because they are less touristy and I'm not going to run into hordes of families.

I expect Mr Christiansen would argue that the Trust (as a charity) is more up for criticism that private properties and he would probably be correct.

So is the Trust guilty of the comments Christiansen makes? Yes and no. Is that a cop out? probably. I think the Trust has a duty to try and make heritage relevant but it can't dumb it down. It has to engage us to inquire about our past, history is important otherwise we'll make the same mistakes time and time again. If all it is a place to let the kids have a run and to have a cup of tea and scone then it has failed (NOT of course that I object to a cup of tea and a scone as regualr readers will know). It has  a fine line to traverse at times it gets it wrong but then you come across a small property like Plas Yn Rhiw and you think all is well with the world.


RUPCHRI said...

This is an extremely interesting and thoughtful commentary. Thank you so much - i wish all my readers were so attentive to what i have written!

Tricia Ryder said...

Well that was an interesting read from both Rupert Christiansen and you.

and yes, it's all about keeping a balance between needing money to maintain properties etc etc and attracting customers... but in properties such as are the National Trust - tacky commercialization could deter rather than attract. But the younger generation should be encouraged to appreciate our country's heritage in a dignified and acceptable style - after all, they are our future historic places keepers.

Is it (the NT) becoming too diverse?... I don't know... but I like the variety of houses, open countryside areas etc...