The National Trust flexes its mansion offer

Nicholas Penny

The National Trust, unsurprisingly, has had a bad year. An honest statement of how the fulfilment of its duty to preserve places of historical interest and beauty has come under great pressure might have persuaded many of its members to double their subscriptions – especially if the Trust were to abandon some of its more extravagant and sillier initiatives. But the PowerPoint presentation entitled ‘Towards a Ten-Year Vision for Places and Experiences’, written by the director of visitor experience and leaked last month, must have left many people feeling that further support for the organisation should be conditional on the removal from office of those in the executive who endorsed such a document.

The director-general now claims that it was merely an ‘internal draft’ discussion paper. Strange, then, that it nowhere describes itself as such. Strange, too, that it was followed by redundancy notices informing hundreds of staff on furlough that their jobs have been ‘stopped’. These redundancies are made in accordance with a ‘reset’ of the organisation (described in another leaked document), consistent with the ideas outlined in the ‘ten-year vision’.

The most remarkable features of the ‘vision’, apart from a failure to mention the original purpose of the National Trust and the reasons for more than a century of bequests to it, are an insulting assessment of its public, a blithe confidence in its powers of clairvoyance, and a slick, obfuscatory jargon. The text is so far removed from the language of the people whose interests it purports to represent that it cannot even use the term ‘country house’. Instead we read about ‘mansions’: the trust must ‘flex its mansion-offer to create more active, fun and useful experiences that our audiences will be looking for in the future’. It is urgent to ‘re-purpose’ interiors and many of the contents must therefore be put into storage – all this in the ‘service of local audiences’, as if the regional public couldn’t possibly enjoy old interiors or works of art, especially not in any quantity.

The nature of the projected ‘active, fun and useful’ experiences is not clear, and the uninitiated cannot yet know what ‘the delivery of the core engagement across multiple channels’ entails. There is some precision, however: ‘Everywhere . . . we will move away from our narrow focus on family and art history.’ To what? ‘To explore the wider stories, from archaeology and local communities to colonial links and social history.’ As if family historians had ignored the source of their subjects’ wealth, or the possible foundations of a Roman fort were inherently more exciting than an Elizabethan hall or a Victorian drawing-room.

The ‘vision’ seems to have been written by someone with a prejudice against the curators currently employed by the trust. There is a strong emphasis on the desirability of partnerships but no mention of the research already being undertaken by curators together with schools and universities. It is stated, without any evidence, that the number of visitors to country houses, and the volunteers helping to keep them open, ‘will dwindle’. The curator of world art remains. A curator of repurposing historic houses will be appointed. But there is to be no specialist curator looking after one of the greatest collections of furniture in the world; no specialist curator responsible for one of the greatest collections of Old Master paintings in the country; no curator with a special knowledge of portraiture.

Those of us who love the bluebell wood or the herbaceous border surely don’t object to others admiring the four-poster in the state bedroom or the mangles in the capacious laundry, but there is a long history of rivalry between the Trust’s different sections. At the moment, rangers are no doubt more in favour than those who concern themselves with the more than 100 accredited museums in the Trust’s care. But that cannot explain the ‘ten-year vision’. It seems more likely that the highly paid directors of visitor experience, of culture and engagement, of welcome and well-being, and of course of marketing, would rather be rid of the troublesome experts who actually know about the history and character of what the visitors wish to see and are keen to study. Plans to stifle and marginalise such experts are not new but Covid-19 has provided the perfect cover to get rid of them.

There must have been a faction within the National Trust that saw the need to continue the study of its collections and improve the ways in which knowledge was made available to the public. It was, after all, only a couple of years ago that research was funded to compensate for the consequences of an imprudent policy of regional autonomy that left many houses in the care of managers ignorant of their contents. This faction must have been silenced; hope now, if there is any, lies with the trustees.


  • 19 September 2020 at 4:45pm
    Eddie says:
    Thank you for this fiery article. You had me at "flex its mansion-offer". Who are these people? They are PR people who move from organisation to organisation (pretty much any one with a "comms" department), with only a superficial understanding of the history, culture and ethos of the entities they represent but a fervent desire to make them look good to in the main other PR people who move from organisation to organisation (and spend their time on Twitter).

    • 22 September 2020 at 8:18pm
      William Brookfield says: @ Eddie
      Surely 'flex my mansion-offer' was something Del-boy would attempt as a doomed pickup line down the pub.

  • 19 September 2020 at 9:12pm
    Hannah Skoda says:
    I’m flabbergasted. There’s a petition on this subject, asking for an extraordinary general meeting of the members, who surely deserve to have a voice on this. If you feel strongly, please do sign on

  • 21 September 2020 at 3:58pm
    Francis Russell says:
    Sir Nicholas Penny is absolutely right. Those responsible for the Trust are evidently intent on betraying the trust of generations of both benefactors and members. The trustees have a clear duty to rein in the officials involved and terminate their contracts before they can do further damage to an institution which in the past offered a model to the civilized world.

  • 22 September 2020 at 7:11pm
    Roland Mayer says:
    Anyone who made the mistake I made of visiting Wightwick Manor in 2018 will have had a grim foretaste of the National Trust's 'active, fun, and useful experiences'. The interiors were, in a word, desecrated by the tasteless banners strewn throughout 'the mansion'.

  • 22 September 2020 at 8:39pm
    John Waldron says:
    I sense the hand here of Perfect Curve and the Director of Better.

  • 22 September 2020 at 8:58pm
    Philip says:
    “Flex it’s mansion-offer”. Pure Birtspeak!

  • 22 September 2020 at 9:06pm
    cato says:
    So did the writers for ‘WC1’ write this?

  • 23 September 2020 at 9:47am
    Gilbert O'brien says:
    Thanks to Nicholas Penny for this timely article although, sadly, I wonder why we are surprised. What has been happening at the NT is only a version of policies initiated at least 40 years ago when the V&A described itself as an ‘ace caff with quite a nice museum attached’. Specialist curators bit the dust there too, and in different ways it has been happening across the country ever since. The only change is that the attitudes signalled then are now more firmly and openly entrenched than they were in those dark days. More fool us for not having been more vigilant in the intervening years.

  • 23 September 2020 at 2:37pm
    Agate says:
    Is part of the reason for a move of this type by the National Trust not a response to the charge of elitism and white-washing - they must be getting so much stick for all the slave-owning, colonisation-exploiting imperial backgrounds of so many of their stately home owners of earlier generations that they are trying to shift the emphasis towards different things. It may be they are genuinely trying to be more populist, and to privilege different aspects of the histories of their houses and there is nothing wrong with that if so. Unfortunately, if they really are getting rid of many of their curators in the process, they're also throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Curatorial in-depth knowledge, unfashionable as it may be to say so, is unlike any other and is necessary.

  • 23 September 2020 at 6:07pm
    prwhalley says:
    OK. I give up. What does "flex its mansion-offer" mean? Is it a play on words? A pun? Based on some popular expression that's come about since I left Britain thirty two years ago? I've been trying to figure this out for days now. Help!

  • 23 September 2020 at 7:49pm
    Michael Collins says:
    The very idea of a director of visitor experience makes my flesh crawl. As it is, Britain's museums and galleries are in thrall to the antics of the interpretation (aka infantilisation) depts., who reduce everything inspiring to the level of entertainment on daytime television. This does not broaden the accessibility of our culture, it merely patronises the general public, giving them McHeritage in bite sized bits. Actually, what is needed is informed choice and ready availability, and this stems from - who'd have thought? - educational resources and commitment. Britain, or in essence the English establishment, reserves culture for its own tribe, as a means of asserting superiority. Once everyone gains a deeper education and understanding, the vainglory of this shallow posture is laid bare, and art is then truly for everyone. The only time I ever see significant numbers of the working class in the National Gallery etc is when their children are on school trips. To hear an expert curator enthuse about the wonders of a particular art is to witness the magical expression of an aspect of enlightened understanding, and to share in that fascination, possibly by disagreeing, but from the inside, not the periphery, which is where the visitor experience dept would corral people to consume their themed merchandise.

  • 23 September 2020 at 10:06pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    Hey guys, you must surely know that now, more than ever, any intellectual or aesthetic tendencies are, at best, frowned upon and, at worst, subject to condemnation, vilification and ostracisation. High art is elitist and ignorance is not only bliss but, frankly, something of which to be proud (pride being a sin has no modern resonance).
    This is the LRB and we can bathe in the glow of our own civilised sensibilities - I mean no irony nor do I sneer - but the world of public-funded art & culture bows to the gods of PC - not altogether unwillingly it seems to me.

    • 24 September 2020 at 9:44am
      Charles Evans says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Ugh, I know, right? The bloody PC brigade are always roaming around these days, making me understand the history of a person, place or thing. It's disgusting! They're destroying our culture by making us learn about it!

  • 24 September 2020 at 1:41am
    gary morgan says:
    Well argued.
    It reminds me of the approach that bedevils education which has been so nicely eviscerated in these pages by Stefan Collini; t reminds me too of a County Agricultural Organisation whose erstwhile chief exec was overpaid, loved twitter and had no idea about farming and agriculture and liked hiring people from HR (what the hell ARE they anyway?). Needless to say the HR types were largely full of silly gimmicks.
    That covid is handled by the likes of G4S, Serco and Deloitte make it no less depressing, if predictable, that the sort of cynics that Wilde nailed so well are wreaking havoc in the NT also.

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