Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the overwhelming majority of people had a very positive view of the National Trust for its work of preserving and making accessible both swathes of the natural landscape and numerous historic properties.
One did begin to hear some criticism from farmers in areas with a National Trust presence in the landscape and from families who felt the arrangements negotiated with the Trust to take over part or all of their ancestral propert were not working as well as they had hoped. Some families deceived to establish their own trusts along the lines that had pioneered by others in the post-war era. Nonetheless the image was still positive, supported by attractive tea shops at country houses, and excellent, if rather expensive, gift and garden shops.
Gradually the image tarnished a little - if you joined you were bombarded with additional appeals for specific projects, the houses became somehow just that little less personal - and more impersonal - preserved as museum pieces rather than in a continuing tradition, the guide books excellent but rather formulaic and the shops became so similar as to be like a chain store.
In recent years this slight unease has been more than compounded by very politically correct statements, initiatives and policies coming from the leadership of the National Trust, which seem to seek to distance themselves from the historic house end of their activities - an aspect that was not the original purpose of the organisation but developed from the acquisition of Blickling Hall in 1940 - towards a more “left leaning” concern with open spaces and accessibility. This latter approach I recall was being pushed by some critics of the NT establishment thirty or so years ago. Some of the change in attitude may be attributed to the legacy of the drift and loss of self-confidence on the part of so many parts of the British establishment over that same last thirty years. It seems antithical to what we had come to see the Trust’s place and role.
These trends, picked up in the press every now and then, can be seen set out in an article in the MailOnline last Friday, based on a report leaked in The Times. It can be read at Is the National Trust turning into a national joke?The background is, inevitably, the impact on the business model of the Trust caused by the coronavirus epidemic.
BBC News at National Trust cuts 'won't dumb down charity' and the MailOnline last
have the response from the Trust.
I would in no way minimise the impact on the Trust, as on the rest of the heritage sector, of the virus and that painful devious may have to be made. Nor would I want to diminish the great achievements of the National Trust in preservation and conservation. However the increase in politically correct or sensitive pronouncements from the leadership do not inspire confidence. The argument that too many in its higher echelons see the NT as being in the heritage-as-entertainment business rather than its more traditional model of transmitting that which was in the past and has been, and can be, preserved seems too often to be borne out.
An example of this came a couple of months back at Dunham Massey in Cheshire, There the country house had in its forecourt a rather charming, harmless blackamoor figure representing Africa and holding up a sundial. It had been there since 1750. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and the felling of the Colston statue in Bristol the National Trust could not remove it fast enough, as is indicated in these reports Dunham Massey Hall sundial, in Dunham Massey removes sundial statue as National Trust admits it causes "upset and distress” and National Trust removes 'degrading' statue of kneeling black man from stately home. The last, from the Daily Telegraph includes a predictably silly comment from a sanctimonious politically correct geek who happened to be visiting at the time.
In the wake of such specific actions and the more general themes explored in the recent reports, do you really trust the National Trust? And if not, should the National Trust be that surprised?