Dumbing down our cultural heritage? Quite the opposite

Published: 26 August 2020

Last update: 26 August 2020

Blog post
This blog post is written by John Orna-Ornstein, Director of Culture and Engagement John Orna-Ornstein Director of Culture and Engagement
A visitor looks round the newly reopened Petworth House, West Sussex

John Orna-Ornstein, our Director of Culture and Engagement, has written a response to the recent stories in the press about our vision for historic buildings. In this blog he discusses what we're doing to care for these important places and collections.

Over the last week the Times newspaper and some other media have published a number of misleading articles. Regrettably these articles were based on leaked documents, including one meant only to prompt internal discussion. They have claimed we're dialling down investment in our country houses. That is absolutely not the case. We actually want to do more with the most important built heritage and collections in our care.

We all know that the National Trust cares for an extraordinary array of houses, gardens and collections. And one of the great pleasures of my job, at least in normal times, is to visit them. Treasure houses like Petworth, Kedleston and Kingston Lacy. Wonderful, story-rich properties that once housed the Beatles, Sir Isaac Newton and Thomas Hardy.

Gardens of international repute like Sissinghurst and Stourhead, alongside little gems such as the riviera garden at Overbecks. Libraries of treasured books individually annotated by owners over centuries of use. Parklands that chart the development of managed landscapes in the most extraordinary way. And world-class collections ranging from paintings by Rembrandt to the fascinating fragments recently recovered from under the floorboards of 15th-century Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk – our most popular Instagram Story ever.

Page of medieval manuscript found at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk
Illuminated manuscript at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk
Page of medieval manuscript found at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk

Cumulatively they are quite simply the nation’s most significant cultural collection. And the Trust’s primary purpose will always be to care for and cherish them on behalf of the whole nation. That will not change, whatever the context. We'll continue to conserve, to catalogue, to curate.

But the context is an incredibly difficult one. Financial losses of more than £200m this year alone mean that we will have to cut our cloth differently in the coming years. We must reduce our costs significantly and, hugely regrettably, that means fewer people as well as less spend on other activity.

We’ve tried hard to minimise the impact of this on our conservation work. That means houses and gardens will be impacted less than some other areas of the Trust’s activity. It also means we’ll need to be more strategic in our approach than before. ‘Salami slicing’ of our resource won’t work. So we’ve had to think carefully about how to reorganise ourselves.

Most importantly, that means a much clearer differentiation between houses, gardens and collections of different significance. Our most significant treasure houses, for example, need as much curatorial and conservation support as possible. Our key gardens will always need a strong cohort of specialists and gardeners to maintain and improve them. But inevitably, in such straitened times, that means some places or collections will have less resource.

It also means varying the experience for our visitors more than we’ve done in the past. The houses with the most important collections and histories will be great cultural centres with rich interpretation and programming. Some of our smaller, character properties are likely to operate on reduced opening hours. But here we plan to turn this to benefit; working with our wonderful volunteers and staff to provide new guided tours and talks and a richer, more rounded experience. And some houses will operate much more flexibly than in the past. Partnerships with organisations ranging from local history societies to Park Run will ensure they are used and enjoyed by local people as well as those from further afield. 

We’re already doing this; it isn’t a radical change. Take Beningbrough near York as an example. The house is displayed in distinctly different ways. The ground floor is presented as a historic interior, and a recent redisplay has moved some collections out of the house to focus on others. The first floor is a gallery, while the upper floor is an immersive exhibition aimed at families. Outside the gardens are being developed – developed not just restored – with new high quality elements added all the time.

At Croome in Worcestershire we’ve taken a very different approach with community-led exhibitions. And Knole in Kent has been restored as a wonderful archbishop’s palace, as a conservation studio and as the life-like, recreated apartment of Eddy Sackville West. This isn’t dumbing down, it’s quite the opposite – it’s taking a thoughtful, differentiated approach to the places we care for.

Eddy Sackville West's bedroom in the Gatehouse Tower at Knole
Eddy Sackville West's bedroom in the Gatehouse Tower at Knole
Eddy Sackville West's bedroom in the Gatehouse Tower at Knole

We're proposing that our teams will be smaller, but more able to bring their expertise to bear where it’s needed. That each of the major houses in our care will have a curator, ensuring that expertise is always available to support conservation, research and cataloguing as well as engaging visitors. That our national specialist curators will perform both an advisory role for properties and, as part of our new status as an Independent Research Organisation, a national research role working with universities and museums. That we’ll retain regional curators with high levels of knowledge and specific expertise in heritage, architecture and collections. And that we’ll have assistant curator roles, ensuring we play our part in developing the brilliant specialists of the future. But these are only proposals and now we’re listening to the views of those affected and to others.

Later in September this year, we’ll publish a report on the links between houses cared for by the Trust and historic slavery and colonialism. We are also developing new interpretation on these histories for our website and for houses and collections themselves. The work is being led by Trust curators and specialists and will be just one example of high quality research applied to a topic of huge importance.

The coronavirus crisis has come as a body blow to the National Trust. But we're determined both to secure the Trust’s future and to ensure we are well able to fulfil our twin ambitions for the future; caring for the great cultural treasures of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and ensuring they are enjoyed by more people than ever in the future. I'm sorry that the Trust’s commitment to this has seemed in doubt to some people in the past days. I can assure you that it is not.


If you have any queries, please email us at enquiries@nationaltrust.org.uk with your full name, full address and supporter/member number.