A recent internal document issued by The National Trust’s Visitor Experience department entitled ‘Towards a Ten-Year Vision for Places and Experiences’ has caused quite the stir since being leaked by The Times.
Below we share some of the opinions and comments from collecting institutions and the media, since this document came to light.
Bendor Grosvenor pulled no punches when writing for The Art Newspaper on 21st August, calling the plans “one of the most damaging assaults on art historical expertise ever seen in the UK”.
In his article, Grosvenor quoted from the National Trust document, pointing their use of language as an indication of their concerning intentions to corporatize the nation’s heritage sites:
‘It proposes a “revolution” in how the trust presents country houses (or as it now refers to them, “mansions”). Describing an “outdated mansion experience”, with exhibitions only serving “niche audiences”, it proposes to “re-purpose” many country houses. The key word used is “differentiation”; instead of the traditional model of houses being regularly open for a broadly similar offering of self-guided tours, the trust will seek “to flex its mansion offer”.
Houses will be grouped into “treasure houses”, “classics”, “high quality public realm”, and “commercial operations”. For treasure houses such as Petworth, visitors might not notice much change. But for what the trust deems to be its less interesting and smaller properties, re-purposing means no longer “preserving and presenting the English country house as a distinctive part of our national heritage”. Instead, they will be used as “public space in service of local audiences”—or, in other words, venues for hire. To cater for this, the document continues, the Trust will be “moving objects or taking them off display where needed to make spaces more flexible and accessible”.
Grosvenor also talks of other documents sent out by chief executive Hilary McGrady, using similar language which appears to confirm the broad thrust of the Ten Year Vision. 1,200 staff will be made redundant in the process. Including 28% of the central curation and experience team. ‘The trust owns 13,683 paintings - but there will no longer be specialist paintings curators.’ Some new, wider-ranging posts will be created, including ‘Curator of re-purposing historic houses’ – as Grosvenor puts it, ‘we must hope they are not keen on weddings.’
Dr Eleni Vassilika wrote a strong post for The Society for the History of Collecting, which acknowledges the history of tensions within the National Trust ‘between the populist ambitions of Visitor Experience to make visits fun and appealing, and those of curators to research, understand, interpret and publish the complex histories of properties and collections’.
Her writing speaks for itself:
‘An explosive document, chirpy and casual in its language but nothing less than a revolutionary assault on the NT’s statutory obligations, has emerged and is mortifying art historians, journalists and cultural movers and shakers alike. A version 2.1 of this document written by the NT’s Visitor Experience Director in May suggests that it was drafted early in Lockdown when staff, who might otherwise have contributed, were furloughed and voiceless. Has Covid-19 provided an excuse to reiterate a hackneyed ‘vision’ whose components are long familiar to curators and others?... The gains in curatorial resources won in the last three years will be knocked back well beyond their 2016 level, even extending to the loss of the Adviser on Pictures and Sculpture, a post established in 1956.’
She ends her precis with a rapid fire of questions that certainly deserve to be answered:
‘No mention is made of the obligations to secure, conserve, document, research, publish and properly interpret collections. Were a similar document produced for any one of our national museums, the public would be aghast and protest vehemently. How can the NT consider removing layers of collecting history? Is it not the NT’s duty to inform and delight? How has such an extraordinarily prejudiced and imbalanced document got this far? Why has the Director of Curation AND Experience not ensured a proper balance between his two responsibilities? Is this ‘vision’ a smoking gun and does its existence explain why the cuts fall so heavily on the curatorial staff? And what is the trustees’ position? How will the NT’s members, government, sister organisations, grant givers, donors, legators and volunteers react?’
The Society for the History of Collecting has also written a statement, signed by members of the Society’s Steering Committee.
‘The NT’s acquisitions policy states that ‘ownership by the Trust should increase benefit to the nation. Such benefit is for future generations as well as our own. It can be provided through physical, visual and intellectual access…’. This duty of care and provision of public benefit cannot be achieved by means of an exclusively populist approach and the downgrading of curatorial expertise. The NT has been a beacon to other countries that have set up or wish to establish similar organisations to preserve their national patrimony. The Society for the History of Collecting is concerned that the NT’s proposed changes will have an enormous deleterious impact on the understanding of the history of collecting in this and other countries and will forever change the NT’s reputation and standing.’
The Historic Libraries Forum has protested the move to cut individual curator roles for specialists in furniture, textiles and libraries, and replace them with more wide-ranging “senior” curator roles. They state simply, ‘no single curator – however experienced – can have expert levels of knowledge about art history, furniture, textiles and books alike.’
Jonathan Knott wrote for Museum’s Association on 26th August, quoting John Orna-Ornstein, the National Trust’s director of culture and engagement, who commissioned the document.
‘In reference to the broader focus of the new roles, he said: “What we want is curators and specialists who have a passion for people and communicating history. We want specialists who know about collections and about places. And we want specialists who can make connections to much broader histories and paint a big picture, as well as focusing on a detail”…. Orna-Ornstein said the document, which he commissioned, was not a strategy or draft strategy. He said it was “deliberately provocative and challenging, and that’s what I wanted it to be”.
He said: “It was meant to stimulate our thinking, and it has done, and there are elements that we are carrying forward into our plans”.’
A Letters and Opinions piece in the Antiques Trade Gazette published a letter from a concerned reader about the proposed changes, who urged people to “write to firstname.lastname@example.org marked for the attention of director general Hilary McGrady with the subject line: ‘National Trust curatorial redundancies – FAO the Director General’”.
The ATG also printed a copy of the letter from Roger Treglown, president of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association, to the Trust which raised concerns that the full plan was yet to be published; ‘These are sweeping changes and if the Trust has confidence in its proposals we urge you to circulate them in full without further loss of time.’ Treglown goes on to note that the controversial plan appears to contradict the Trust’s press release from 20th July that promised to limit the cots to staff working in collections.
‘Even where items remain on public view, skilled interpretation by specialists is of inestimable value in ensuring that they are appreciated by the widest possible audience… As booksellers we are especially concerned about the 600,000 volumes housed across 180 National Trust sites… The Trust appears on the verge of ensuring that they vanish from public view and use in the 21st [century].’
And Nicolas Barker, who was responsible for raising the funds to endow the libraries of The National Trust, summed up the whole debacle in one eloquent line: “The National Trust’s libraries are what Milton called ‘a potencie of life’ – without a librarian they will die.”