I happened upon an article last week on twitter that was posted by a friend of mine (View the article here) which left me in a pretty irritated state of mind. I really am quite sick of the amount of people slamming the National Trust. There is nothing more singularly British and time-honoured to me than the National Trust and I’d like to think that even those who might not like to visit its special places still hold a certain amount of respect for the work that they do.
The main argument of the article against the National Trust seems to be centred around the way that they ‘Camp it up’ and employ ‘Disneyfication’ (I actually have a personal hatred of this word now). In fact as a company, and a successful company at that – there is nothing particularly wrong with Disney. They continue to grow and adapt to changing technology and times and make money in the process; why then, shouldn’t the National Trust at least take advice or help from them if they can? I’m not saying they should become like Disney – but the use of sounds and smells and sights at these houses does not equate to the loud, vibrant and overly-happy way of being that Disney employs. When Mr Aslett calls the National Trust ‘camp’, I can only assume that he feels that they are being artificial and theatrical in this way. I can see how he might come to this conclusion but this is a gross misunderstanding of what the Trust is trying to do and obviously their efforts cannot be appreciated by everyone. The Trust have simply taken on board the advice of another party and chosen to interpret it and use that advice in a way fitting to the setting.
For Ever, For Everyone
Despite all of this it’s the first sentence of his article of that irritates me the most – ‘Like the BBC the National Trust is a favourite auntie to the middle classes’. It is precisely this sort of segmentation of the public that the Trust is trying to veer away from. The new tagline for the National Trust is in fact For Ever, For Everyone. Not just for the well-educated, comfortable, white picket fenced families of the well-to-do areas of town, but for everyone. Which is precisely why they are moving towards different and more modern means of engaging the public – in order to interest as wide a range of people as possible.
As for the pheasant shooting at Polesdon Lacey – it feels like more of a good excuse to rant than being actually related to the article. I personally don’t see any issue with the shooting – and in fact agree that as an Edwardian past-time it would fit well with the feel of the house. However, comparing this to the way that the Trust has chosen to portray the house seems to be a very vague arguement. I visited Polesdon Lacey a few years back and saw for myself the way you are welcomed into the home and made to feel as a guest to a dinner party and I thought it was wonderful. Wonderful for the recreation, wonderful for the fact that I really had a sense of what it might have been like to live like that, wonderful to see the echoes of the past and be able to walk through the house thinking of everything I was being told or was reading. And at the same time they did not push anything on to me – the stewards were careful to give me information if I asked or needed it but not to go overboard and they allowed me wander around the house and take it all in, in my own time and in my own way.
I especially didn’t see the relevance of the lady of house, Mrs. Greville, being referred to as a ‘fat old slug’. I hardly think that it is pertinent to the argument when one persons opinion of a woman cannot fail but to be biased. The fact that King George the VI and Elizabeth spent their honeymoon at the house and were friends with Mrs Greville must go some way to show that she was considered pleasant enough to be friends with by some fairly important people and people who could have quite easily chosen not to spend their honeymoon with her. In fact who would want to go to a dinner party held by someone who was not a good host, yet Mrs Greville had many parties and many friends to invite to them. The Trust simply reflects this. Nor should you think to presume that because Polesdon Lacey shows itself in this light, that all properties do – the Trust doesn’t shy away from dirt and clutter, it doesn’t only show its houses as the perfect immaculate properties they once were. Calke Abbey is one of the houses which the Trust have left in its original condition in order to preserve the atmosphere of the clutter and collections which were accrued over the centuries, dust and all.
It is the variety of the ways in which the Trust exhibits its collections and houses that appeals to me the most. They employ a technique which many others ignore but which stems back to our understanding of learning as a child. Now more than ever teachers are encouraged to engage children in any way they can and to tailor lessons and teaching to the needs of all of the children and not simply use the ‘learn by rote’ method. Just because we are no longer children does not mean we do not continue to learn in different ways – despite having a vivid imagination, I myself find seeing things come to life and doing things for myself are the best way, but I can learn by writing things down and by listening if needs be. Which is probably why many museums and historic houses employ a variety of methods nowadays. The time is past when all you got was a myriad of objects behind a glass screen with labels telling you what they were. I went to Bristol Museum recently and was delighted in the Egyptian section to find touchscreens which allowed you to learn more about the objects you could see and their uses and even made a game of it for children.
The collections of the National Trust and their houses are well cared for by experienced and well-trained staff and the levels of appreciation and dedication to the houses often go un-noticed. I spent almost three years of my life as a Conservation Assistant, seeing the work and effort that goes into caring for these places, visiting other houses, being given training up and down the country, listening and learning from the rest of my team and my managers and I was amazed at the amount of detail and effort that these people put in to make sure that every little thing is just right. I was fortunate to have worked with someone who had a wide variety of interests and a ridiculous amount of knowledge on so many different subjects – the biggest one of these being the house I worked at itself and listening to him talk was always a pleasure. The National Trust takes its role in conservation extremely seriously and pulls on the resources and expertise of a variety of different conservators and curators that work both in and outside of the Trust. The point being is that the National Trust does more than half of the work tucked away behind doors – and to criticise or underestimate the amount of effort they put in is in my view the antithesis of being British (when did we become such a nation of moaners and critics).
I know that some of the methods for engaging the public are not appreciated by all, and so do the National Trust – they listen to their members, they constantly ask for feedback and comments from the public and they try to ensure that the experience they bring to all of their special places strives always to be the best it can possibley be. The Trust is still a charity at its heart, it depends upon the public and the money they bring with them to be able to do the work that they do. So isn’t it perfectly understandable that they would employ whatever methods they could in order to attract and engage the public and keep them coming back? Whatever you see inside the houses, whatever new technology that is introduced – it will never detract from the core conservation work that exists at the heart of the National Trust and continues behind doors, every year throughout the winter months.
I am extremely proud of the way that the National Trust works to show their houses, their collections and our heritage off to the world. They know the value of keeping up-to-date with technology, with current affairs and popular culture and without their forward thinking they could easily have been left quite literally in the past. Without the public’s support there is no money, without the money there is no Trust and without the Trust we would lose those places which have survived for so long and which represent the growth and vibrant history of the British Isles.
So to all those who would compain of the National Trust’s new ideas, I would say open your mind and see the bigger picture. Just because something is not for you does not make it wrong, does not make it not worthy of continuation.
If you truly love the National Trust as I do then show your support, lend your advice and most of all take a moment to enjoy what they have taken a lifetime to conserve.