I have now had a chance of reading the National Trust’s document Towards a 10-Year Vision for Places & Experiences. Since there has been much criticism online of people – I include myself – for being critical of what has been proposed without adequate background information, I would like to make the following suggestions, which are intended to be helpful, not just destructive, since lives and jobs, particularly of junior staff, are at stake:-
- I see absolutely no reason whatsoever why the National Trust cannot make the document available to its membership instead of suffering it being discussed in newspapers and online without its members being able to read it and judge it for themselves. It is a perfectly serious document which has clearly been the result of considerable thought. Since it is the basis for radical proposed changes in the way the Trust operates, it would surely benefit from being discussed from the original rather than secondhand and its assumptions canvassed and tested more widely.
- The document refers to input from Insight and external sources for its projection of future trends in the way people visit and consume culture, without giving an indication as to exactly what these sources are. It would be useful to know.
- The reference to what is described as ‘an outdated mansion experience’ states that ‘our reliance on outdoors for growth has left us with a mansion offer that is still (despite cosmetic improvements) fundamentally unchanged since the 1980s, serving a loyal but (by 2030) dwindling audience’. But no statistics are given, nor is there any indication of changing patterns of visits which might justify a view that the public is no longer interested in such houses as Petworth and Uppark, Ham House and Shugborough, not to mention Plas Newydd which has always been packed with visitors when we have been, suggesting a growth in public interest in recent decades, not a reduction. One wants statistics in order to be able to understand the reality of current trends.
- The document suggests, as has been much quoted, that the National Trust should ‘dial down’ its role as a national cultural institution, equivalent in value to the British Museum and the V&A. But isn’t this just what its members and its donors want it to be, an institution that looks after the past with care and intelligence, encouraging as many people as possible to enjoy it, rather than locking up the houses and putting the collections into storage ? I find this aspect of the document counter-intuitive.
- There is a suggestion that the Trust should devote its resources away from ‘the enthusiasts, the specialists, the experienced and the cognoscenti’ towards ‘the people’. But surely the whole point of differentiation in the way houses are presented, which is what the document sensibly advocates, is not to treat everyone as if they are the same – a homogeneous, undifferentiated lump – but precisely that everyone has the capability of enjoying houses as enthusiasts and cognoscenti. This is certainly the way that museums have changed.
- The document states that National Trust houses should ‘move away from our narrow focus on family and art history, and explore the wider stories and connections that these places open up – from archaeology and local communities to colonial links and social history’. But isn’t this exactly what the Trust has been doing for the last fifty years ? The whole point of what it did at Erddig in the 1970s was to move away from a narrow art historical interpretation towards thinking about the house as a document of social history.
These are my thoughts. But I would be interested in what the staff think and whether they share and are inspired by one member of staff’s opinions. Do they share the views expressed in the document, particularly the younger staff whose views should surely be canvassed since they are going to be tasked with putting the collections away in store ‘to create the more active, fun and useful experiences that our audiences will be looking for in future’? We deserve to know, surely, what these ‘active, fun and useful experiences’ are going to be which are going to replace the experience of learning about furniture and looking at art.