What's wrong with the National Trust? (ctd.)

March 31 2015

Image of What's wrong with the National Trust? (ctd.)

Picture: Telegraph

Further to Dame Helen Ghosh’s remarks, here’s more news on the National Trust. Ping into my inbox comes an email from Amanda Bradley, who is Assistant Curator of Pictures and Sculpture and at the Trust. I am very grateful to her for getting in touch. She says Dame Helen’s remarks have been misinterpreted:

Forgive me for not responding to the uproar provoked by your blog until now. I do think the national press misconstrued what was being said by Helen Ghosh.  We are definitely not taking all the 'stuff' out of houses. Where space allows, we would like to focus on select object(s) in a room, so that some of our visitors are not so overwhelmed by the plethora of objects that they cease to see individual works. This has nothing to do with the class of the visitor. 

To some visitors, our interiors are seen as assemblages of furniture, paintings and decorative arts from the other side of a rope. Not all of them can easily focus on a work of art on the other side of the room; indeed, due to their increasing exposure to exhibitions of some sophistication (also pedagogically), they may be less interested in the effect of a furnished interior, but would rather expect to see and understand the significance and manufacture of individual objects/works of art.  Understanding the importance, symbolism and manufacture of an object will hopefully be an enlightening experience. We are striving to do quite the opposite of dumbing down and are hoping to provide intellectual access to key (and rotating) objects and works of art.

It is heartening that people feel so strongly.

So it seems ‘the stuff’ remains, which reassuring. Or at least most of it.

But the last paragraph tells us what the new Trust policy is really all about - and what presumably Dame Helen was trying to explain, when she 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.’

Here’s the new policy as I understand it: because visitors are used to seeing paintings in a museum setting, the Trust feels they need to make stately homes more like museums. To do this, the Trust will remove certain objects from their current settings, and place them in a different place within the same property, with more information provided, and present them in a more museum-like manner (with swanky lighting), to provide people with ‘intellectual access’ to them. 

I suppose this is better than ‘taking stuff out’. But it still seems to me to be a rather misguided approach. Houses (indeed, homes, as some still are) are very different environments from museums. I suspect most people go to Trust properties because they want to see, feel, even smell, something of the past, to see how people lived, both ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’. Taking a key painting out of a room, in which it might have been designed to hang, and sticking it somewhere else, or God forbid, in a display case, surely diminishes the historic experience. And why diminish all the other exhibits in a house by saying, 'look only at these six'? Nor am I sure that making houses more like museums - those havens of middle class life - will help bring in the new audiences Dame Helen was talking about.

Amanda acknowledged this concern when I put it to her:

The museum issue is a complicated one and indeed some of our houses have museum status. We do recognise that historic houses are, in many ways, unlike museums, but a rich layering of collections, taste and history.  We need to make these points relevant and interesting to all our visitors – and this is not a question of class, but a question of making things appealing and exciting to those who are not historians or art historians. If I am taking someone around a museum, I generally point them towards what I consider highlights. Granted, this is subjective, but they come away having learnt a lot about a few things, rather than wandering aimlessly, and not being able to see the wood for the trees. This is what we would like to do at the Trust and we do want to attract museum-goers. As you will appreciate, the role of the Trust is wide-ranging and complex, so addressing the interpretation of period interiors should also engage those who are interested in the outdoors and nature. The two are not mutually exclusive and it is our quest to balance the two.

While the Trust insists this new policy is nothing to do with class (even though it was Dame Helen who banged on about class in the first place) I wonder if there is something a little patronising in assuming visitors who ‘wander aimlessly’ must learn more about things? I suspect many people like to wander aimlessly around Trust houses, picking and choosing what they are interested in. I certainly do. The calm, quiet splendour of Trust houses is part of the appeal. Most of us usually resist the offer of a guided tour - there’s only so much preaching we can take in. 

In my experience as a regular Trust visitor, when people want to know more about paintings in a Trust house, they usually ask someone. Trust room wardens are keen and enthusiastic tellers of interesting stories. Where the system sometimes currently fails is when Trust properties cannot provide wardens and visitors with the basic information people want to know. Many a time I’ve tried to point out that an ‘English School’ portrait is actually by, say, Charles Jervas, but I never get anywhere. The Trust needs to focus on the basics. There can be no substitute for properly catalogued painting lists, and informative guide books. All of the Trust’s aims can be reached by taking away ropes, installing better lighting, and by making guidebooks interesting. The Trust could even harness new technology, and follow the National Gallery's example of providing free wifi, so that visitors can tap into more information on the Trust's excellent online database. That way, the Trust can provide better than ever 'intellectual access', while at the same time preserve the historic character of a house.

And that seems to me to be the most important thing here - maintaining the integrity of the historic space. Although the Trust insists that all this has nothing to do with class, I wonder if they would adopt the same ‘too much stuff’ approach to, say, the 'downstairs' section of a coutnry house. Would the Trust think of removing an ancient cooking pot from a historic kitchen, and put it in a museum-like display case somewhere else, with a plethora of informative labels? No, because it’s abundantly clear that both pot and kitchen would be diminished by such a move. And as it will always be better to keep the pot on the old stove in the old kitchen, so it will always be better to keep the Gainsborough above the fireplace for which it was designed.

Let’s give the final word to the Trust’s recently retired curator for paintings, Alastair Laing, who says (in this interview on Codart, given before the recent hoo-ha):

Pictures in historic houses serve a dual role. They are both individual works of art and part of a historic interior. The interconnectedness in historic houses between paintings and the history of the house gives them something really special. […]

One of the most important changes in the past ten years has been the emphasis on accessibility, something that has both positive and negative sides, as mentioned earlier. It is wonderful to have people enjoy historic houses and gardens, but it should happen in a way that highlights the qualities of the houses and the collections. […]

I hope that the National Trust will to some extent return to celebrating the historic houses and their collections for what they are. The present need always “to tell stories” somehow diminishes the emphasis on the houses, their inhabitants and the collections for their own sake. Our wonderful houses are exciting enough as they are, we don’t have to make them exciting artificially.

Update - a reader tweets:

Trust shame the director’s words need to be made accessible to us by her staff.

Another reader writes:

I'm one of the volunteer guides who give tours round the studio home of a Russian sculptor. We don't 'preach' and haven't noticed most people avoiding our tours!

While another adds:

On the National Trust (and maybe on the past hanging) discussion I think I am slightly out of the chorus. Talking about Kenwood House,* I think they succeeded in creating a very visitor and family friendly place. You can leave your children to play in the orangerie (in a couple of years you will understand how priceless this is…) and sneak out to enjoy the collection.  And I never encountered museum staff so motivated, ready to engage with visitors and knowledgeable. I thought this was a sign of a good management with some vision.

Also I think that, to be fully enjoyed, the Gainsborough, the Rembrandt, the Vermeer and the Van Dyck need their proper hanging and some breathing space, and I do not mind if this means rotating less important works or lending them elsewhere (of course, they should be readily available to scholars, ecc.). Just my opinion.

Actually, I am very fond of Kenwood, and think all the above sounds very sensible. So, if it ain't broke...

[*thanks to the readers who pointed out that Kenwood is actually run by English Heritage!]

Update II - another reader tweets:

My experience with volunteers was lack of knowledge and overflowing with (too much) enthusiasm.

While another adds:

Still, it's temporary storms I'm sure - and thank God for the NT as a whole.


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