Its open house for discussion, as closures become a permanent fixture

By Cherry Irvine: Arts Columnist

For the past two weeks the National Trust has been trending on Twitter and has been the subject of numerous articles. This is due to recent discussions within the institution about their future in the light of both Coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement. Considering this, it has yet to be decided by the consensus of Twitter and the press whether we should still trust the National Trust.

Left and Right-wing newspapers collide on points concerning both matters. The proposed job cuts of curators within the institution has been branded as a ‘dumbing down’ of the organisation, whilst the recognition of certain National Trust properties and their links to slavery has been described as ‘triggering’. What is the truth behind these reports on the future of this national institution and should we still rely on it to make the right choices with our most treasured historic buildings and artworks?

The National Trust is a household name in the UK. Not only for its longevity, but also because we all know at least one beach, museum or house owned by the organisation. It is not just a custodian of our heritage buildings, but also owns a vast number of paintings: 13,683 in total. Last week a document on the National Trust’s future was reportedly leaked. ‘Towards a Ten-Year Vision for Places and Experiences’ has caused significant uproar amongst employees, art historians and members of the organisation.

The document proposes the most significant changes to the institution since its birth in 1895. Out of the 111 employees with the word curator in their job title, 31 will be cut – including specialised curators who look after the multitude of paintings. The art historian Bendor Grosvenor wrote an angered response to the document describing the cuts “as one of the most damaging assaults ever seen on the UK’s art historical expertise”- a damming statement. With plans to make around 1,200 staff redundant – it is perhaps one of the first, and probably not the last, truly harmful long-term effects of this pandemic.

Like many other museums and national institutions, the National Trust is set to lose a significant amount of revenue due to the coronavirus crisis – around £200 million. Their director, Hilary McGrady, wrote a response to the outpouring of anger, asking for our understanding regarding this huge lose of income, despite the revenue from the £243 million of annual membership fees, which may have been largely unaffected, during month-long closures. Rumours in the press that only 20 of their houses will be kept open continually, and that 95% of their portfolio will reopen with some book-ahead only. 5%, of the over 500 properties the organisation owns, equates to 25 houses that will never reopen.

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This could be your local gallery, garden, or house. Instead of increasing accessibility through these proposed initiatives, they will reduce it. The director defended the document arguing that it was only intended “to provoke discussion”, but the damage has been done. News of the ‘dumbing-down’ of the National Trust has not been well received by their loyal patrons. It is a far cry from its original intention to protect and promote the nation’s heritage.

The document leads us to believe that the National Trust is betraying its own ethos – its core beliefs and purpose. It also suggests the removal of certain historic objects from its houses to make more room and re-purpose them as venues. Let us not mince words; marketing their buildings as wedding venues is where the real money is made. The document exposed the organisation’s worries about remaining relevant for the future, describing its plans to increase its audience and its accessibility.

The organisation has been in the news this week for a separate reason, due to a statement published on its website which addresses the history of certain objects in their collection and their link to slavery and colonialization. This was both a brave and necessary recognition, however the fact that many of their expert’s face redundancy seems entirely contrary to this aim. To better understand the placement and role of problematic buildings and artworks requires these experts – it requires informed art and cultural historians. To reduce specialised exhibitions defeats the point of this acknowledgement. Will the National Trust simply remove problematic objects, without examining and contextualising their significance, until they are left with empty shells of houses? They seem be failing to understand their most basic role – to look after local heritage and through this serve the community based around these historic houses. Their members may travel further afield to see a variety of National Trust properties, but they will always return to the ones they know. By cutting back on specialised exhibitions and reducing the number of objects on display, the organisation is reducing accessibility and alienating its current and future members.

Like everyone, the National Trust is facing huge financial difficulties, but they are in a better condition than most. Focusing on their role in the Twenty-First Century and trying to keep time with London museums, there could be benefit by returning to the values that made them. Adaptation is necessary as with all things, does not equate to a complete overturning of their fundamental values. There are benefits to curating a new, informed perspective on its many buildings and artworks – not board them up for them never to be seen again. This requires continuing to attract new members through hiring new, fresh voices. The National Trust has never truly been about the houses, though, but about the lives lived in them, the artworks that were made for these places, and the people who continue to look-after them through their expert-knowledge, love and hard-work. What the National Trust really needs to do is trust in their people.