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September 2020

Vol. 162 / No. 1410

Cultural revolution at the National Trust

What a difference seven months can make. In February we published an Editorial, ‘The National Trust at 125’, which praised the organisation’s recent revitalisation of its curatorial department, and in the same issue launched a series of articles to publish research on works of art in its collections. The latest instalment, written by two of its curators, appears in the present issue (pp.766–75). What has happened since February is, of course, the covid-19 pandemic, which the National Trust reckons will cost it £200 million in lost income. As a result, it furloughed the majority of its staff. Rather than pursue ways in which it could legally dip into its reserves (£1.34 billion in 2018–19, including restricted funds) or ask staff to take a pay cut, it embarked on a number of savings, including most significantly a reduction of its workforce by thirteen per cent – 1,200 employees in all. Consultation is under way and will conclude on 11th September.

On the face of it, this level of redundancies is not unreasonable, given the financial predicament faced by the National Trust, in common with all cultural organisations. There has, however, been widespread shock at the impact this will have on its curatorial resources. In response to a Curatorial Review in 2016, new national specialist curators were appointed, bringing the number up to five, responsible for pictures and sculpture, decorative arts, furniture, textiles and libraries. These posts are now to be replaced by four ‘senior national curators’, whose responsibilities will be divided by period – the sixteenth century (and presumably everything before that), the seventeenth century, the eighteenth century, and the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries. In addition, the post of Lead Curator in all seven of the National Trust’s regions is to be merged with that of Visitor Experience Consultant, greatly diminishing professional distinction and reducing curatorial capacity. The result of these changes will be a substantial loss of expertise for the organisation, combined with an ill-thought-out reallocation of roles. In particular, a division of curatorial responsibilities along period lines, in the manner of an art gallery, is completely misconceived for such complex multi-period entities as the National Trust’s historic houses.

The document sent to staff setting out these proposed changes, signed by John Orna-Ornstein, Director of Curation and Experience, does not greatly help understanding of the reasoning behind them: ‘The Curation & Experience Directorate will focus on providing an accessible, gateway experience to nature, beauty and history for the widest possible range of people [. . .] delivered by three re-shaped teams with matrix working baked into our new structure’. Much more revealing is a paper, ‘Towards a 10-Year Vision for Places & Experiences’, written by Tony Berry, Visitor Experience Director, that was approved in May but has yet to be presented to the trustees. Under the heading ‘Mansions: from evolution to revolution’, he writes 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 and enabled by a loyal but dwindling volunteer base. The changes we’ll need in our built places are revolutionary, not evolutionary’. Arguing that ‘new guidance on collections’ is needed, he writes that, ‘We need to be much clearer about the places where wecan begin changing our approach to collections display moving objects or taking them off display where needed to make spaces more flexible and accessible [. . .] without this we’ll be unable to flex our mansion offer to create the more active, fun and useful experiences that our audiences willbe looking for in future’. In his assessment of the National Trust’s roles, he advises the need to ‘dial down’ comparisons with any ‘major national cultural institution’ – ‘British Museum, V&A, Tate’. This all may explain why as part of the reorganisation it is proposed to create a new post, ‘Senior National Curator, Repurposing Historic Houses’.

Such a vision of the National Trust’s future leaves out rather a lot. First of all, 133 of those ‘mansions’ are accredited museums, a status they will lose if the curatorial expertise that is fundamental to it is discarded (it enables, for example, the National Trust to be given works of art under the government’s Cultural Gifts and Acceptance in Lieu schemes). The National Trust owns more old-master paintings than the National Gallery and vastly more furniture and decorative arts than the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, yet by comparison with those organisations – neither of which has made curators redundant in response to the pandemic – it has always been curatorially under-resourced. Secondly, the idea that historic houses can be made more ‘flexible and accessible’ by clearing out some of their contents suggests a degree of institutional memory loss: the National Trust’s experiment with doing just that at Ickworth House, Suffolk, in 2015 was greeted with public derision. Finally, it is hard to reconcile Mr Berry’s belief that historic houses have a ‘dwindling’ audience with their centrality to the organisation’s finances, since a large majority of its members join the National Trust in order to gain free admission to them – as was made plain by the loss of a quarter of a million members this year as a result of the closure of the houses in response to the pandemic.

The blinkered approach exemplified by Mr Berry’s document extends to the Director-General, Hilary McGrady. In a recent interview, she stated that ‘I guess I’m redressing the balance of nearly three decades of built heritage being the primary thing we’ve been interested in, to being actually nature as the thing that genuinely brings most benefit’.1 This is inaccurate – the National Trust has never said that it is primarily interested in its buildings and collections – and tendentious, since the opposition she sets up between ‘buildings’ and ‘nature’ ignores the fact that the vision of the National Trust’s founders encompassed buildings and landscape, gardens and architecture, nature and the arts in a harmonious unity.

It is baffling that an organisation that has conservation as its core function should fail to understand the fundamental role played by curatorship. Without curators’ research-based understanding of the significance of what the National Trust owns, the concept of ‘visitor experience’ is meaningless and the programmes recently launched on such subjects as slavery would lack intellectual credibility. It is deplorable that the executive should be willing, on the basis of a review carried out behind closed doors and with no outside consultation, lightly to discard expertise built up over several generations. If the National Trust goes ahead with the proposed curatorial redundancies and reorganisation it will suffer grave reputational damage and put the houses and collections that it owns in jeopardy.

1 M. Fletcher: ‘It’s not a great time for the National Trust to have a 125th birthday’, Daily Telegraph (9th August 2020).