What's wrong with the National Trust?

March 24 2015

Image of What's wrong with the National Trust?

Picture: Paul Grover/Telegraph

Has the National Trust lost interest in art? This is something I've been worried about for some time, but now it seems to have been confirmed in a statement by the Trust's chief executive, Dame Helen Ghosh. Dame Helen is worried that the Trust is seen as too 'middle-class', and not getting the right people coming to visit its sites. So one plan is take paintings out of Trust properties. She told the Telegraph:

People were also put off because there is “so much stuff” in some of the stately homes. The Trust was now looking at featuring only a handful of interesting artworks in some homes to see if it increased their appeal. Dame Helen said: “We just make people work fantastically hard, and we can make them work much less hard.”

I think this is the stupidest thing I've ever heard anyone involved in British heritage say. Stuff the millions who go to National Trust properties specifically to admire 'the stuff', and instead cater to an imagined minority who are apparently 'put off' by old paintings. I suspect people - of all classes - are more likely to be put off by such a patronising attitude. [Note for overseas readers, British institutions like this are obsessed with 'class', still - can you believe it?]

And here's more silliness from Dame Helen:

She said: “It is not surprising, given where we have come from, that the kind of places that we own are places where the middle classes feel more comfortable, because it is more part of their cultural life.”

She added that it was not the entrance fee at a lot of attractions that was likely to put visitors off, but a feeling that “this place isn’t for them”.

The challenge was to persuade people that they did not need to feel awkward “if they didn’t know who George II was”.

Does anyone out there, truly, know of anyone else who 'feels awkward' when they don't know who a historical figure is? Don't most people think, 'oh, I don't know about George II, let's find out a little more'? In other words, shouldn't the National Trust respond to this particular problem by saying instead: 'some people don't know much about George II, let's tell them about him'? By the way, I don't know much about George II either.

Dame Helen denies that the Trust is becoming 'Disney-fied'. But last week I went to a National Trust property just outside London - Claydon - and in each of the main rooms the Trust had removed a painting, and replaced it instead with a TV screen, in which actors pretended to be various historical characters. The screens were noisy, and played endlessly, shattering the atmosphere of the house. The acting was hammy, and the scripts were full of faux, Downton Abbey-style nonsense. Nobody I asked seemed to like them, least of all those who worked and volunteered at the house.

At the same time, there was no list of pictures available for visitors, and much of the information about the art in the guidebook was simply incorrect. The Trust made no effort to enlighten visitors about the pictures or the stories contained within them, even though they are fascinating. So I saw no effort there of the Trust 'making visitors work exceptionally hard'. Quite the opposite. 

I used to be a member of the Trust. Over the years I've tried my best for them. Once, I received a notice about elections to the Trust's governing body, the grandly-named Council. Seeing that the 52-strong body was short of a) people below 50, and b) practising art historians on (which I thought odd, since the Trust has one of the greatest art collections in Britain) I decided to apply. 

But the interview was a bit of a disaster. I was asked a series of vapid questions like, 'what do you think of when you go for a walk on National Trust land', and 'what do you think of trees', as well as my views on  High Speed trains (HS2) and wind turbines. I like trains, and dislike wind turbines as much as I do vapid questions, so my answers didn't go down very well. Dame Helen loves wind turbines. And when I said that I was hoping to bring some art historical expertise to the Council (and quite relevant expertise, since the Trust mainly has British portraits) I recieved blank looks. The panel said they couldn't ask me about what I had to offer, because, in the interests of fairness, they had to ask all candidates the same set of questions.

Anyway, I didn't get nominated. And judging by Dame Helen's latest plans to take paintings out of Trust houses, neither did any other art historians.

Update - a reader writes:

I have always refused to join the English National Trust despite receiving a hard sell at every visit, because (a) it takes little interest in its excellent picture collections (b) it wants to tell soapy stories about the usually, though not always, rather ordinary families who owned its houses (c) I get a hard sell to join at every visit (d) it does not seem interested in architecture (e) it is not short of my money (f) it seems more patronising every year.

By comparison the Scottish National Trust is less patronising, poorer, and so far has not expressed a wish to get rid of its pictures. I joined this year.

Me too!

Update II - another reader writes:

I am glad you are shining a light on unwelcome changes at The National Trust. A few years ago the National Trust started to introduce new guidebooks which significantly reduced the sections dealing with the history of the family and the house and did away completely with detailed descriptions of key artworks in each of the rooms.  Kingston Lacy in Dorset is a good example where the Trust is custodian to one of the finest country house art collections. The latest version of the guidebook, introduced in 2012, runs to 56 pages with only a cursory overview of the pictures.  This lightweight publication replaces the previous version of the guidebook which ran to 96 pages with detailed descriptions of many of the paintings and other artworks in the collection and an informative essay as to the origins and importance of the collection.  Comparing both books side by side is a sobering experience.

Polesden Lacey in Surrey is another good example.  If you visit the house you will see that room stewards have a good quality laminated book which contains photographs of all the paintings in the house with potted histories on how they came to enter the collection.  When I first saw this book I asked to buy a copy but was told that the Trust was not intending to sell it to the public; it was simply there for the stewards to use.  I offered to make a donation to the Trust in exchange for a copy but again, there was no interest in sharing this interesting knowledge with visitors.  As the Trust is clearly focused on dumbing down its publications I enquired as to what they were planning to do for those who actually come to their houses to learn about art and history.  I am yet to receive an answer.  in the meantime I would suggest that readers with similar passions buy older versions of the guidebooks on eBay while stocks last.

Update III - it's worse than I thought folks. Here are more remarks from Dame Helen this time in the Daily Mail:

The Trust is to experiment with simplifying the exhibits at some of its properties.

Dame Helen said: ‘When it comes to our big grand houses one of the things we have to look at is the sheer number of exhibits. There is so much stuff in there.

‘Let’s not expect our visitors to look at every single picture in a room - let’s pick one lovely thing, put it in the middle of the room and light it really well.

‘Let’s just have six or seven of those things dotted around that anybody would love - it’s not difficult.

‘We make people work fantastically hard - we could make them work much less hard.’

But she denied that the Trust is ‘dumbing down’ its approach in order to boost visitor numbers.

‘In many ways it is much more intellectually rewarding,’ Dame Helen insisted.

‘People will learn much more by looking at one object in a lot of detail, than they ever would going round a room getting a vague impression.’


Update IV:

An overseas reader writes:

Well, your blog post on the National Trust made for very depressing reading. Last August I spent a very happy few days with a National Trust touring pass, roaming around Kent and East Sussex. The properties were fabulous and the "stuff" inside was marvellous. I love the "stuff"! It doesn't "put me off". I can't quite believe the comments made by Dame Helen, how ridiculous and pretty patronising really. (And stunned to hear that one of the curators would not be interested to try and identify unattributed paintings). As an overseas visitor, every time I come to the UK I am so envious of the wonderful stately homes, palaces and castles that you have coming out of your ears - filled with amazing treasures and paintings. (I am working my way through the Ten Treasures Houses of England...five to go). The idea of deliberately reducing the number of paintings on display is ludicrous to me...and to do so in order to make non 'middle class' people feel more comfortable....huh?! Sounds a bit 'Yes, Minister' to me.

Another reader wonders where they'll put all the pictures they take down:

Absolutely bonkers isnt it!!! What are they going to do with all the 'stuff' they want to remove from the houses...where they have usually been for hundreds of years? To storage? Sell (doubt they can?).....

Then we get into storage charges....did the family want only one picture put on show instead of how the place was left to them....

If I didn't know about a pictures sitter or artist I usually ask a guide but so much better to have a little label or at least a decent guide book.....

Scottish National Trust do it well!

And another reader hopes the message will catch on:

Your alarm signals about the NT need to be expressed more widely .... could it be that there are journalists with clout who actually drop in on AHN?

We have to hope.

The sad drift evidenced with Dame Ghosh and her friends may be related to the trendification (and watering down) since the 1970’s of Art History as a subject and its infection from Messrs Marx and Durkheim.

Now left dangerously lumped with media studies .... No ?

While another reader imagines what might happen if Dame Helen was in charge elsewhere:

The National Trust is blazing the trail here.

I understand that there are advanced plans at the Royal Opera House to remove the music and boring sections from their productions. 

They will attract far more of the right people if they restrict performances to Nessum Dorma and that nice duet from the BOAC advert.

The Royal Shakespeare Company is next. That stage area would make a good heritage cafe.

Update V - another reader writes:

I noticed the following comment under the Telegraph interview with Dame Helen:

"the Trust has not produced an updated list of properties in 17 years. A strange omission for a property owning organisation"

If that's correct I think something should be done about that.

An overseas, trust-visiting reader adds:

How very sad Dame Helen feels the need to "dumb down" for visitors to National Trust sites.  As an overseas visitor, with the opportunity to travel to the UK only every few years I look forward to seeing as much as possible.   To truly be able to engage with  old paintings is one of the main reasons I go to the UK.  I'm not visiting to feel more comfortable, but explore as much as possible in a way I'm not able to by looking at picture in a book.

Many museums, fine houses etc. in my opinion do not have adequate information about the art work in their care.  As a result before I travel I look online to see what art collections are at a particular site and research the art I would like to see.

For me, the only way to truly appreciate the piece is to understand the artist who made it, why they did, what the world was like when they did and then really look. I am not looking for a "vague impressions" but to be as immersed as possible with the art around me.

An overseas curator writes:

I'm firmly against the embargo on the files for unpublished volumes but it's not my call. Also glad to read your bashing of Dame Helen, who should be fired for such stupidity. I have been a member of the trust for the past four years and have been making intensive yearly roadtrips. The idea of emptying houses because there is too much "stuff" in them is simply appalling.

And another UK family writes:

Just read your piece on the National Trust and am left feeling despondent and so very patronised by Dame Helen’s comments. We, a young family, have been members of the Trust for some years – presumably just the sort of audience Dame Helen is keen to attract. My son, now 9, has spent many hours over the years visiting NT properties with us. He absolutely loves the ‘stuff’, and is perfectly capable of selecting one or two objects to look at in more detail (as are his parents). Not surprisingly when we first started visiting NT properties with him he didn’t know much about George II, either. He does now. Wonder why?

Off to write a letter to Dame Helen.

Another reader sees a wider conspiracy:

your article, and the responses it evinced, pursuade me of what I have always suspected, that the target audience of the National Trust is the Conservative front bench.

Not sure I agree with that...

A UK curator writes:

To be fair to the NT Collections curators,  a very large proportion of their art works [and other items] are online so it is possible to ascertain a full list of all pictures in a particular property, with adequate information and [sadly inadequate but online] images whether or not the works are on view / in store/ hung high on a staircase / in a dark corner way beyond the ropes.   But this should be in addition to informative handlists etc on site, as often one doesn’t know in advance what works are to be seen.


Another reader breaks out the caps lock, and I know how she feels:

I am APPALLED BY WHAT the new NT  chief executive said. I have been a member of the NT for many years and worked as a volunteer but if this is the new policy, I shall stop being a member.  They probably would not care if one member resigns but I sincerely hope that a lot more people will think likewise in which case the NT will loose more members than they will acquire through such crass & patronising attitude, I hope. How dreadful that somebody who thinks like Dame Helen should be at the head of the NT. Perhaps we should start a petition, to stop the NT actually introducing this crass and patronising policy.

Another reader reports this bad experience:

I recently contacted the Trust at Anglesey Abbey, following a purchase I made of a small painting attributed to Richard Parkes Bonington, it's not a great picture and small in size but as I'm a researcher and budding art history writer I thought it would interesting to reach out and make contact with the Trust, as I was aware Anglesey Abbey have a fine collection of pictures by Bonington.  

I had spoken to a volunteer on one of my previous visits about my picture and they gave me a name at the Trust to contact.  The volunteer seemed quite buoyant  about me contacting this person as they were the main contact and a good source of knowledge etc.

I sent an email explaining, where I had bought the picture, who it was attributed to and how the previous owner of the picture was connected to the owner of Anglesey Abbey.  I thought this might have been a eureka moment, but how wrong I was!

After my second email to the contact, the first email being left unanswered for a time, I sent the email again.  I know I'm just a member of the general public but I was showing my interest in the Trust and it's work, I thought it might have been reciprocal. I did receive a response and I was told that they would contact the curator as they might know some further information but the reply I received was a bit of a put-off and felt that they just don't have the time to engage with me.   

Which is a pity as the Trust do have such very fine collections, they just need to look at their engagement and outreach policy and see how they can make it inclusive for all ages and interests.

Update VI - The National Trust say the new 'less stuff' approach comes as a result of 'reviewing' their sites and what visitors want. I asked the Trust for evidence to back up the belief that people want to see 'less stuff' - as I simply don't believe it. Answer comes there none...

Update VII - In a fine and enouraging move, the National Trust's own 'National Trust Art' Twitter account has been carefully making its own views on the 'less stuff' policy known:

Whoever you are, well done!

Update VII - I think I should make it very clear that my comments above are directed at the Trust's leadership, and not the many hardworking curators and volunteers. I don't doubt for a second that they are as keen as I am on 'the stuff'. Regular readers will know that I have in the past regularly highlighted much of the Trust curator's work, be it a Rembrandt discovery, or the creation of their own excellent collections website. 

On the Trust's Treasure Hunt blog, a new entry highlights the purchase of a work of art which used to hang at a Trust property, Belton House. The picture below, an 'attributed to Berchem' scene, was bought from Tennants auction the other day. By coincidence, I saw the painting - it is not a great work by any means, and worth about the £7,000 the Trust paid. But it is nice that it should go back to where it used to hang.

In response to the NT's blog post, many readers wrote of their concern at Dame Helen's 'less stuff' comments. One reader highlighted AHN's concerns too. To which Emile de Bruijn, a Trust curator who writes the Treasure Hunt blog, replied:

I am surprised and disappointed that you are swayed by Bendor Grosvenor’s comments. I think this very blog post, and the evidence of the Treasure Hunt blog as whole (which channels the work of many colleagues) proves that he is wrong.

Emile further pointed out:

I simply don’t agree that we are dumbing down. If anything, things are going the other way, with more and more art-historical information becoming available through our online collections database and our specialist publications programme. Just think of the recent Sixtus cabinet book: a whole lavishly illustrated and deeply researched tome on just one object.

The misconception that we don’t care about serious art lovers is caused, I think, by the fact that we also have to look after and engage our other, less specialist visitors. The National Trust has never just been a museum. But it is not a question of ‘either – or': we can do both. So please don’t give up on us.

I hope my main point should nonetheless be pretty obvious - that all the hard work put in by people like Emile is pointless if the Trust leadership isn't interested in it. Dame Helen's comments sound very much like 'either or'. All of this could be resolved if the Trust put a statement making it clear that Dame Helen's remarks have been misinterpreted. But they have not. Instead, I hear worrying reports of Trust employees being warned to 'keep quiet', and not make any comment against Dame Helen's remarks.

So let us hope that the 'either or' approach doesn't mean that 'the stuff' gets shunted online or into books, and out of houses and into store. While the new NT collections website is indeed a great thing, it can never be a substitute for properly showing the actual paintings themselves, in their original historic setting, and explaining to visitors their meaning and purpose - should those visitors, of whatever class, choose to want to know. If they don't want to look at 'the stuff', then steer them towards the café.

Update VIII - another reader summarises the affair thus:

The NT is responsible — in “trust” — for historic houses: not historic architectural shells to shelter a select few pieces of approved art spotlighted as if in a museum, telling us what to look at, but houses with all their lived-in, accumulated-by-owners, even reacquired historic artistic furnishings including paintings, tapestries, woodwork, carpets, “stuff” if you will, so all visitors can see and feel the history for themselves; something we cannot do in most museums however high their levels of artistic quality may be.  Your curator friend’s defence of the NT on grounds of its online and publishing activities is deeply misguided: the houses must come first, in all their higgledy-piggledy, very human glory, vanity, and “stuffiness”.  After all, that’s who most of their owners were: that, too, is our history, whether we react in admiration, envy, fascination or dismay.

Update IX - a reader agrees with the last comment:

Further to the excellent comment at Update VIII, if I recall correctly, James Lees-Milne once wrote that a major part of the charm of English country houses was the 'palimpsest' that was created by multiple generations of ownership by the same family.

He also I believe in a different context complained that the NT sometimes destroyed its houses' charm by over-tidying them. At the same time, he also noted that he had made mistakes when preparing NT houses for opening to the public.

Perhaps there is a balance to be found for the great majority of NT houses that lies somewhere between Calke Abbey and Barrington Court (which was acquired without any historic contents), where the historical contents of the house are displayed more or less as the owners left them, with some degree of scholarship and tidying up of egregious mistakes, and with ample information about the contents readily available. 

But there is no excuse for 'dumbing down' a house whose importance and interest are a product of its history, and whose history is in no small part, its contents.

Another reader sees the NT's new position as evidence of a worrying trend:

I one hundred percent agree with your well founded criticism of the National Trust. However, this is an issue bigger than the NT and indicative of museums and galleries world wide. i.e. Have a slick digitally accessible collection and hide the real one. Didacticism is also deemed a rude and dogmatic term now, the cultural sector is abuzz with words like 'exploring' 'engaging', 'experiencing' and 'responding'. Thus the problem is, what you deem patronising they actually perceive of as removing it!? I work in a museum in Australia and am so discouraged that I have decided to get out of it and find a more fulfilling job.

Curators putting together exhibitions whose narrative they can't explain and education programs that cater for no one over the age of fifteen. I thought the cultural sector would be a more outward looking extension of academia. It's often not now. I was wrong.

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