Founded in 1895 and given statutory powers in 1907 with the passing of the first of six successive acts of Parliament, The National Trust (NT) now has nearly six million members, some 10% of the UK’s population, attesting to the important role it plays in the life of the nation. The provisions of the 1937 Act extended the NT’s purposes to include ‘The preservation of furniture and pictures and chattels of … national or historic or artistic interest’ and the promotion of ‘… access to and enjoyment of such buildings places and chattels by the public.’
In recent decades the NT has been increasingly aware that its membership does not reflect society at large. The majority of its properties are rural, and access is largely dependent on private car ownership. Presentation and interpretation strategies have varied from telling stories about the ‘mansion houses’ – often focusing on the habits or eccentricities of former inhabitants – to making those houses more museum-like. On a rotating basis, some houses have been interpreted in response to annually set themes such as World War I, Europe, LGBTQ+, the suffragettes’ movement etc.
There have been tensions for some time within the Trust between the populist ambitions of Visitor Experience to make visits fun and appealing, and those of curators to research, understand, interpret and publish the complex histories of properties and collections. The curator’s role has extended to moderating the proliferation of unsympathetic banners, signage and even new structures. A re-evaluation in 2016 of curatorship redressed the sense that the Visitor Experience approach had overwhelmed the Trust with its distracting bells and whistles. Many new, young curators were hired to support the 344 historic properties, 144 of which are accredited museums, hopeful that a new collaborative partnership could be forged with Visitor Experience.
The Trust recently announced its intention to make 1,200 redundancies in the face of substantial losses on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. The plans would see the closure of many national roles, including specialist curatorial advisers, and lead curators in the regions. The gains in curatorial resources won in the last three years will be knocked back well beyond their 2016 level, even extending to the loss of the Adviser on Pictures and Sculpture, a post established in 1956.
An explosive document, chirpy and casual in its language but nothing less than a revolutionary assault on the NT’s statutory obligations, has emerged and is mortifying art historians, journalists and cultural movers and shakers alike. A version 2.1 of this document written by the NT’s Visitor Experience Director in May suggests that it was drafted early in Lockdown when staff, who might otherwise have contributed, were furloughed and voiceless. Has Covid-19 provided an excuse to reiterate a hackneyed ‘vision’ whose components are long familiar to curators and others? It calls for the NT to ‘dial down’ its role as a major national cultural institution, directing more of its resources to the outdoors with the addition of multi-trails, while transforming its gardens – some of the greatest in the world – into places of relaxation in which an ‘aesthetic free from existing styles and expectations’ would prevail. It proposes that many houses should be ‘re-purposed’ as public spaces for local audiences and that programming and exhibitions should be scaled back. Further recommendations include having fewer collections on view and presenting the houses in a way that makes the visit a ‘fun and useful experience’.
The NT does have a large staff – it has nearly doubled in the last ten years – and faces serious financial challenges, but it also has a statutory duty to preserve and provide access to its collections, especially to those in historic properties now accredited as museums. No mention is made of the obligations to secure, conserve, document, research, publish and properly interpret collections. Were a similar document produced for any one of our national museums, the public would be aghast and protest vehemently. How can the NT consider removing layers of collecting history? Is it not the NT’s duty to inform and delight? How has such an extraordinarily prejudiced and imbalanced document got this far? Why has the Director of Curation AND Experience not ensured a proper balance between his two responsibilities? Is this ‘vision’ a smoking gun and does its existence explain why the cuts fall so heavily on the curatorial staff? And what is the trustees’ position? How will the NT’s members, government, sister organisations, grant givers, donors, legators and volunteers react? Let us hope that the NT does not imperil its outstanding international reputation.
Dr Eleni Vassilika