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

April 10 2015

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

Picture: Telegraph

The Daily Telegraph's Harry Wallop (above) has been to Ickworth to see the beanbags, having been alerted to their insidious presence by AHN. Here's his article, which is well worth a read.

The Trust's defence is typically maddening. In the Telegraph article, it falls to Sue Borges, 'the marketing and engagement manager at Ickworth', to explain why the Trust removed the original early 19th C furniture (which they bought some years ago) and consigned it to storage. Sue says:

“Before, it was very linear. We did a counting exercise two years ago and found that most people spent a minute and half in this room. And we wanted to encourage people to dwell and take in the atmosphere.”

She adds: “It's about making it more accessible, whether it be intellectually, or physically.”

A counting exercise will be conducted later this year to see if “dwell time” is extended. But Mrs Borges, who is a charming tweed-skirted guide, insists the bean bags are already a hit. "Our visitors are enjoying it, and they are engaging with us. We had 9,500 people through Ickworth last week and not a single person has criticised us for what we have done in here."

All that boring 19th Century furniture - it's so linear! And I wonder if Sue, albeit unwittingly, personifies part of the problem: she is the 'engagement and marketing' manager. Shouldn't marketing be seperate from 'engagement' and its related curatorial decisions? I wonder if Sue's job title explains those giftshop cushions I saw scattered amongst the main rooms at Ickworth. It's certainly a novel approach - take out the original furnishings, and replace them with things the punters can buy. Kerrching!

Anyway, Sue's last claim seems a little disingenuous, as Harry Wallop gently points out (he spoke to some of the room guides - sorry 'interpreters' - who made it quite clear that many people are as baffled as I was). But it's more evidence of the usual defensive reflexes you get when an institution like the Trust loses touch with both reality and its members; in other words, an organisation which refuses to listen. Does it matter to the Trust if someone like Tim Knox, a former Head Curator of the Trust, breaks ranks and says removing the historic interiors at Ickworth is 'misguided'? Not at all.

In fact, says Sue Borges, people like Tim and I (and almost all of you, dear AHNers):

[...] clearly have some strong opinions about how mansion houses should be presented. And I don't think we should shy away from challenging those opinions."

That's 'engagement'-speak for 'screw you'. 

Many thanks for all your comments so far. Please keep 'em coming.

Update - a reader writes:

I've been following the Ickworth/National Trust story via your twitter feed and AHN with interest. My girlfriend and I are new NT members, and surely of an age group (35) that they'd be keen to attract. We're unlikely to renew our membership beyond this year...

Thought you might be interested in this - https://vimeo.com/113257582

It's Sue Borges talking in 2014 about new directions at Ickworth, including 'spirit of place'. Is it just me, or does it not seem as if she has responsibility for making curatorial decisions? To me, this video confirms that important decisions at the NT are being made by 'marketing and engagement' types rather than art historians/curators. 

Incidentally, a recent trip to Kingston Lacy perhaps highlights a lack of care in their approach to their art collection. Las Meninas was not on display in the Spanish Room, and as far as I could see, there was no explanation as to where it was...

Do watch the video made by Sue Borges. It's all a bit management speak, but actually what she has to say sounds quite promising. She says she wants to focus more on the collections and original works of art, and talks of raising the blinds, to let more light in. So quite how these noble aims translated into removing some of the most important furniture, and closing the shutters in the library, so that it is gloomier than ever before, defeats me. 

Over on the Country Seat blog, the National Trust's Regional Director, Ben Cowell, has written in defense of the Ickworth experiment. Actually, he doesn't defend the removal of the furniture at all, but makes the case for 're-interpreting' some National Trust houses from time to time. He makes the case well, and cites the example of Dunham Massey, which has been transformed into how it was during the Great War.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am entirely in favour of this sort of well-curated intervention, and mentioned in the updates of an earlier post a similar example, at Upton House, which I thought looked to be a great success. But at Ickworth, taking away original furniture and replacing it with beanbags isn't re-interpretation. It's just silliness.

Anyway, the Trust could really score a PR win here if it just said, 'the Ickworth thing was an experiment - and we've seen the reaction, and are unlikely to do it again.' That's all they need to do.

Update II - Dr Iain Clark writes:

I joined the Trust in 1970, started lecturing for it at the age of 23 and when a junior hospital doctor working an average 116 hours a week managed to find time to found the Banbury Centre of Trust members.

You can imagine my disgust at the way the Trust is moving! [...]

Essentially the fact is that art is and always was and always will be the product of surplus wealth and thus is the creation of the elite. It is a point completely missed in the modern PC world.

I do not know what one can do about it. The Trust does have an elected council but after the entryism farce which resulted in the hunting ban in 1995 the Trust has protected itself from pressure groups, but that is exactly what is needed to bring it to its senses.

Iain has also written a comment on the Country Seat blog in response to Ben Cowell's post, which ends thus:

I am not rich, but what was to be my residual estate is now going to the Georgian group, SAVE and the Countryside Restoration Trust and no longer to the National Trust. I am not alone in my disillusion.

Jenni Hatton sends in this zinger:

After reading your article regarding the National Trust site of Ickworth I am frankly disgusted about your small mindedness. 

As a current archaeology student, employee of the National Trust and a life member I have visited many National Trust properties, and I have seen the behind the scenes methods employed by the National Trust. Re-interpretation of rooms is a vital way of encouraging repeat visits, as many people say “once you’ve visited a property there is no point visiting it again”. They are wrong. By reinterpreting the history, the artefacts and the rooms it enables visitors to focus on different items in the room, to gain a better understanding of the history at that particular property. Imagine if you begin to rewrite the same old boring articles? You wouldn’t get any new readers - this is exactly what we are doing. By encouraging repeat visits we can continue to look after special places for everyone.

I can’t personally speak for the team at Ickworth, however I can say they haven’t removed the much loved chairs, carpets or any of the furniture which was in the room, it is in storage. And the likely hood is that the room will return to how it looked previously in the next year or so. 

There is not a Trust policy which is to make the historic places they look after into museums, they are in-fact actively trying to make the historic places they care for more accessible for everyone, making them spaces for everyone to enjoy in different ways. 

I suggest you visit a number of properties before making ridiculous statements without having any true understanding of the heritage industry. 

Jenni completely misses many points. First, how is removing the original contents of a room 're-interpretation'? And how does it encourage repeat visits? Unless by frustrated visitors who come again, hoping to see what they were denied on an earlier visit? And Jenni, we know the furniture has gone into storage, that's the point. Secondly, the Trust has explicitly said to me that, in some cases, their policy is indeed to adopt a more museum-like approach. And finally, I have visited many, many historic houses, and I venture to suggest that I do have some understanding of the heritage industry - after all, many of the arts and heritage policies I helped draw up have now become government policy. And I'm very proud of them too.

But I have noticed, in light of the above comment, and also from one or two comments on Twitter, that the only people who seem to approve of Ickworth's policy are those that work in the heritage of museum sector. And it's suprising to see the disdain with which some people who work in museums view those of us who visit them. Bit of a disconnect there...

Update III - as if to prove my last point above, Kate Yates, the Ickworth House Steward from 2001-2013, says that people who want to go and see the wonderful works of art at Ickworth are 'tiny' - and those of us who regret seeing the removal of some of the works should 'get over it'. Here's her email in full:

As the House Steward of Ickworth for 12 years I feel compelled to respond to your article "What's wrong with the National Trust". I love absolutely every cavernous room and nook and cranny in that place - it was my entire life and it feels like home whenever I return. I am old school when it comes to country houses and long thought that the NT was dumbing down the art and architecture and history of the owners of such places. Why is the NT obsessed about making everyone love their houses? Why can't it just accept that some people do not find art and antiques interesting, even those attached to a colourful family history, and cater properly for those who do? Why? Because the small number of people who are actually interested in seeing such glorious works of art in a country house setting is tiny - too small to sustain the vast maintenance costs that go hand-in-hand with a vast property. Ickworth has an internationally important collection, a fantastic history and stories to entertain everyone however it does not have an internationally recognised historical figure associated with it that it can market easily to tourists. Although very grand and striking in appearance it is not a pretty house and doesn't have glorious flower gardens. To top it all it's in "Curious" Suffolk. People love Suffolk because it is rural, quiet, and slow but these aren't helpful qualities when it comes to attracting visitors.

When I first started working for the Trust there was only one balancing act, that of conservation of the collection v. access ("physically and intellectually") to the collection. Now however they also seem to be struggling to find the best mid point for how to interpret their collections. I did think they were tipping over too much towards those who only want a sentence or two about a whole room. Or rather that is how it appeared.

When I left in 2013 Ickworth were working on producing a rather glossy and comprehensive picture list, which the curatorial staff are always updating,  and of course for those interested there is now a public access catalogue online. My comment specifically about the Library at Ickworth would be that, although it's a shame that it doesn't now look like it does in the guidebook, the whole house was furnished by Banting & France so there are plenty of other pieces to satisfy any furniture lovers and the library curtains which can be seen at close quarters are made from the same silk as the upholstered pieces which have been TEMPORARILY stored away. To give greater physical access to a room, to create a more immersive experience (which I believe were the buzz words in my time and is surely the reason to come to a country house rather than an art gallery), they needed to remove the ropes and drugget. This meant that people would have been walking on an early 19th century carpet and up against the beautiful Regency furniture so for understandable conservation reasons these have been removed. Did you notice that having access to the central part of the room means now that any visitor who is physically capable of doing so can lie directly under the stunning geometry of the Osler chandelier, also made specifically for the room? This, which should be actively encouraged, was only ever possible during the closed months by members of staff and what better way to do this than by lounging on a beanbag!

As I said, I'm from the old school of Please Do not Touch signs and my initial reaction would have been "What the...?" but then I would have stopped, looked around and thought actually what a great opportunity! So my final comment would be "get over it". By the way, on behalf of my ex-colleagues, thanks to you and Harry Wallop for the publicity!

I still don't understand how removing exhibits helps create a 'more immersive experience'. Doesn't 'less stuff' mean there is less to be immersed in? What about those who want to be 'immersed' in the feel of an authentic early 19th Century library - must we deny them? And, if dedicated art lovers are 'tiny' in number - which I can assure her they are not - I can't imagine many people are desperate to sit directly underneath a chandelier. 

Another reader writes:

The torment continues....

The heading for your latest post on the NT surely could have been "Guffwatch"...? Trotting out phrases like "linear", "dwell time", "making it more accessible, whether it be intellectually, or physically", "engaging with us", "challenging opinions". Spare me.

And doing a further counting exercise to see if "dwell time" has been extended is not, in my opinion, and indicator of success. Wandering around horror-struck could well take more time than wandering through in a 'linear' fashion.

I would suggest Ickworth puts a large photograph of how the library was formerly and ask visitors which they prefer. I have no doubt what the overwhelming response would be. And, to encourage dwell time - if that is so important - put some other more suitable (and subtle) chairs in the room with a sign inviting visitors to have a seat. (Not those ghastly Darth Vader armchairs). I visited Lyme Park 2 years ago (a NT property) and I recall sitting in chairs in the library and being invited by the room guide to find a book to read if I felt so inclined.

I would happily revisit all of the NT properties that I have seen because there is so much to see and one visit isn't enough.

I am so glad you are drawing attention to this whole debacle via your blog.


Update IV - another rearder writes:

Since Kate Yates emphasizes how removal of the carpet and protecting ropes improves “physical accessibility” at Ickworth, and since — wheelchair bound — I daily encounter small but impassible barriers, I want to say that I appreciate her concern but would much prefer “immersing" myself as far as possible in the full historical atmosphere and furnishings of a country house, from the margins of a room, to traversing an impoverished but fully accessible space such as the current version of the Ickworth library.  Then again, I have the advantage of bringing along my own chair! Although, from experience, I can also assure Ms. Yates that beanbag chairs are the nadir of accessibility for persons with any limitations of mobility or arm or leg strength, as well as diminishing the “intellectual accessibility” of an historic room by their sheer out-of-place ugliness.  Yes, I want historic houses to be accessible to me and my wheelchair, as far as may reasonably be; but I don’t want “physical accessibility” deployed as an excuse for ill-considered, unnecessary anachronisms however fashionably draped in the condescending analogy of “intellectual accessibility”.

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