Recently, British heritage charity the National Trust has come under intense scrutiny. A few concurrent events have seen the National Trust high up on the news agenda – and not always for positive reasons.
A report due to be released shortly is expected to show that around a third of National Trust stately homes have links to slavery or colonialism. Soon after this news was made public, an internal National Trust discussion document was leaked which suggested that the trust should focus on its outdoor assets and recognise that an ‘outdated mansion experience’ was serving fewer and fewer visitors. The leak angered many National Trust members, who saw the new plans as an attempt to depart from serious cultural history.
To make things worse, some of the National Trust’s membership offered itself up to strident criticism after members took issue with a twitter thread posted by the National Trust on the UNESCO Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. The National Trust shared a series of images of objects in its collections with links to slavery. It offered background information on each of these objects, making clear the human cost and exploitation that underpinned many of them. Some members responded in outrage over twitter, accusing the National Trust of lecturing them and removing the joy that its collections bring. Some even promised to cancel their memberships.
The National Trust has had a hard year. Though it has around six million members, member recruitment stalled with the onset of Covid-19. It is facing losses of roughly £200 million and is expected to make around 1,200 staff redundant.
The controversies of recent weeks, coupled with the trust’s altered financial fortunes, indicate that now may be the right time for the charity to implement change.
Though the National Trust is supposed to be a heritage charity, some of its most loyal members have shown themselves to be unwilling to confront the truths about Britain’s past. This suggests that many of those who have aligned themselves with the trust are not so much interested in history and heritage, but in amusement and illusion. Some members seem to want the trust to present a selective vision of Britain’s past – one that delights with its curiosities and soothes with stories of success.
But we all know that such a vision is not the truth. With plans to reinvent itself clearly on the horizon, the National Trust needs to think carefully about how these strategies will take shape. Much of its membership may be reluctant to see links to slavery made bare, but the National Trust is first and foremost a history charity, which needs to act in the public interest by using its capacity to sway historical understanding wisely.
The trust’s leaked restructuring plans have understandably drawn a lot of criticism. Many of the 1,200 staff it intends to make redundant will be curators and experts, and this certainly may be a negative step for the trust going forward. Expert staff are the lifeblood of any historical organisation, and if the trust is to act positively on the reports of slavery links, it will need to draw on expertise in order to cement its historical veracity.
However, plans to rethink the mansion and stately home experience are not necessarily bad in themselves. It is mansions and stately homes in particular that are tarnished by slavery links. Once the preserves of society’s elite, mansions are inextricably tied to the ways in which that elite consolidated its wealth and status. How they are presented to visitors needs to be reconsidered in the light of recent findings. Whether the National Trust needs to change the emphasis it places on such establishments is also a crucial question.
Architectural historian Mark Kirby suggests that scaling back or mothballing the mansion house experience (an implied suggestion in the leaked documents) could be a misreading of where the public enjoyment lies. Kirby argues that closing such houses would deprive the public of important heritage and the opportunity to become passionate about art and architecture.
But until and unless these mansions are presented in a way that reveals their full context, the opportunity for historical learning is diminished. If the National Trust wishes to focus on new types of visitor experience as it strives to reach a point of historical transparency then that is a positive step forward. Diversifying the trust’s offering may not be an appealing option for all members, but it is a necessary step the trust must take to make itself relevant now and sustainable in the long term. Yes, not all its proposals may be sound, but the aim to revitalise what the trust stands for is surely commendable.
The National Trust may be a heritage organisation, but that does not mean it has to stay in the past (even if some members think it should). So, let’s hope we hear some more news about the trust in the coming weeks, showing that it is taking decisive action at these crossroads.