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

April 6 2015

The National Trust denied to me that Dame Helen Ghosh's recent 'there's too much stuff in our houses' comments did not actually mean that 'stuff' would be removed. Instead, they said, it would merely be displayed in a better way, to provide enhanced 'intellectual access' for visitors.

But this is untrue. 'Stuff' has actually begun to be removed, as I saw today when I went to Ickworth, the former home of the Marquesses of Bristol.

The library - probably the finest room in the house - used to contain a suite of historic furnishings, as shown above. The furniture, much of it by Banting and France, was commissioned by the 1st Marquess of Bristol in the 1820s. The chair coverings matched the enormous silk curtains, and the furniture was an integral part of a room originally designed by the famous Bishop-Earl of Bristol, who believed the high-ceilinged rooms helped his asthma. Much of this furniture was actually bought by the National Trust after they acquired the house (I presume from the errant 7th Marquess, who was a drug addict, and sold most of the contents to the Trust) specifically to recreate the original interior.

But now all the furniture - and the carpet - has been removed and placed in storage. The room now appears as above (apologies for the poor photos taken on my phone). The only furnishings in the room are four bean bags (for visitors to lounge on), a piano (which is accompanied by piped music), and two hideously upholstered arm chairs.

The removal of the furniture - and thus the temporary destruction of the historic setting - is therefore an indicator of what the Trust's new 'too much stuff' strategy will mean in practice. A room guard told me it was 'an experiment' to make it easier for people to look at the paintings. Apparently simply removing the ropes, or moving one or two pieces of furniture, was not possible.

The removal of the furniture facilitates, just about, a closer look at two paintings on the fireplace wall, one of which is a portrait of Prince Baltasar Carlos attributed to Velasquez. But the other painting is hardly a great work, and being able to peer up at them a little more closely doesn't compensate for not being able to see the library as it was. Beneath the 'Velasquez'* the Trust has tastefully placed a cushion showing a detail of the portrait, which is available in the gift shop.

Nor did I see much evidence of enhanced 'intellectual access' (as the Trust calls it, which is modern curator-speak for 'telling people about things'). In the middle of the library is an old book, lit, and in a display case. This must be one of the 'five or six lovely things' Dame Helen wants visitors to focus on. But I saw  no label with it, so I didn't know what it was. The library was unusually dark, because three of the windows were shuttered up because a pastel painting, by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, had been brought into the room as part of the new display. This pastel, along with another painting (a copy of a portrait by Sir Francis Grant) were placed on easels in front of the shuttered windows. The pictures on easels were minor pictures, and there was little effort to tell people what they were. The large easel-mounted picture is perilously in danger of someone walking or falling into it. 

A great room is thus reduced to a bizarre joke. I can't quite believe that anyone at the Trust thought this was a good idea. I never imagined they would go this far. Certainly, it didn't seem to be what visitors wanted or expected; the room warden told me hardly anyone lounged on the bean bags, or sat in the lounge chairs. It shows the folly of the Trust's new policy to deliberately make houses feel more like museums; in this case, the pictures were not good enough to justify a museum-like focus, and the overall effect was to denude the room of any feeling of it having once been a library, because visitors are invited to look at specific objects in different ways. It's a scandalous waste of time and money - a dereliction of duty imposed upon members for no other reason than to humour the Trust's sudden crisis of confidence, and its belief that we're all too stupid to admire more than one thing at a time.

The best pictures are in another part of the house, in a small room with little furniture in it. Therein you'll find a Titian, a Hogarth, a Vigee Le Brun self portrait, and many other treasures. They are mostly easy to see, and one gets the feel of both museum and historic home. Some of the pictures have picture lights, but the Titian (one of the finest paintings the Trust owns) was rather gloomy, because the bulb had gone (as seen in the below photo, lower left). In other words, if the Trust was really hoping to help people 'see the pictures better' they would attend to small things like the picture lights. But I don't think the Trust really is interested in helping people see pictures. I think the removal of the library furniture is instead part of a new phobia about having 'too much stuff', and a worrying sign of an organisation that has lost its way.

Readers are encouraged to send any other examples they come across. We must fight this new idiocy.

*More on this picture soon. I think it might actually be by Velasquez's son-in-law, Del Mazo.

Update - here's another photo of the cushion. There's more of these dotted around the house.

And here's a photo of some new, rather cheap-looking signs they've put around the house, which are presumably part of the plan to 'highlight' the five or six things they think people will be interested in. So in the room below, we get a sign pointing out that a writing case was used for, er, writing. In the same room you'll find one of the finest full-length portraits  Gainsborough ever painted. No sign about that...

Update II - here's the blurb from the National Trust's online collection page, which makes a point of mentioning the library furniture:

The collections assembled at Ickworth are beyond compare. [...] Our furniture includes the most comprehensive surviving collection of pieces by Royal furniture makers Banting, France and Co, commissioned by the 1st Marquess, as well as significant pieces of continental furniture. Our library is one of the Trust’s finest [...]

The Trust has a good online presence for things like this, and the Trust's central curators take care to present collections like Ickworth's in the best possible way. But online is no substitute for in situ.

Update III - a reader writes:

Scandalous.  And so stupid and simply ugly.  Beanbag chairs, for God’s sake!  And the obtrusive, kitschy information panel (surely it would be far better to use both old-fashioned information sheets in plastic paddles, which visitors can choose to pick up or not and carry with them room by room, and new-fashioned wi-fi for pick—up by smartphones and tablets). Short of actually destroying the furniture and the carpet, this is close to vandalism.

Another writes:

I thought your post was another April Fools joke at first.
But it turns out you've highlighted an idiotic act of (hopefully reversible) vandalism which makes it absolutely clear that the concerns you have expressed about the National Trust's direction are valid.

Another takes a special exception to the bean bags:

So many things wrong with the National Trust. What stood out for me beside the total lack of understanding and respect f

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