What springs to mind when you hear the words ‘National Trust’? Old buildings I presume? Perhaps an image of veteran volunteers who have given many years if not decades of service to the Trust. But I should suspect most people see an organisation committed to protecting and preserving the heritage of our nation. Recently, however, the Trust has come under increasing pressure over its direction. Its primary task has always been the preservation of our history at any cost, focusing on the heritage aspects of the myriad of old stately homes, forests, castles and beaches in its care. As a nation, we have placed our faith in the Trust to secure our history for the future.
But, and I believe this to be no overstatement: in more recent times the Trust has changed fundamentally its outlook, core values and attitude to history, selling its very soul in the process.
The Trust may call itself a charity, conserving all in its position and indeed to an extent it does this, but what is also clear is the growth and new-found strength of the ‘business ideology’ which has taken hold in the Trust and the arguably lethargic nature of much of the Trust’s senior leadership. I will present to case studies if you will which demonstrate both of these to be recent trends in the Trust.
Once home to the Parker family, Saltram is a Georgian house situated on the banks of the River Plym in Devon. Owned by the trust since 1957, it has recently been undergoing a major restoration project in the ’Saloon’. This involves painstaking cleaning of the ceiling and most importantly the restoration of the carpet, made by Thomas Whitty, who founded Axminster Carpets a year after the commission was given to him to produce the carpet by the Parkers, making it one of the oldest Axminster carpets in existence and Whitty’s first major commission. All sounds good so far, doesn’t it? The hitch comes when you realise what the Trust has planned for the future of the said carpet and the Saloon at Saltram.
I ask you: what is the point in spending huge amounts of money preserving the Saloon at Saltram, only to in effect cover-up what the house itself admits is the most important aspect of the room; all in the name of allowing the public into the room; in other words, in the name of increasing business and footfall over heritage. Don’t tell me the original carpet, which will remain under the copy will not suffer hugely from such actions? And surely, people go to places such as Saltram to see original 250-year-old items, not to walk on a copy of it!
No, of course, you could say ‘but it’s just a carpet, does it really matter’. My reply is yes, absolutely! It’s more the principle if not anything else. The Trust should be preserving such an artefact to display to the public as part of our countries rich historical social fabric, not covering it up in the hope of increasing business with the selling point that visitors can now walk into the whole room. And let us not forget, it was the Trust who in March this year called the Saltram Axminster ‘arguably the most important English carpet in the Trust’s care’…
The decision to tunnel under part of the UNESCO world heritage site has been attacked on all sides. This is a patent attempt, whatever the Trust or English Heritage for that matter say, to allow for greater access and hence more business at the site. There can be little dispute that this is their core reason for giving their ‘cautious consent’. This shows, on a grander scale than the example of Saltram how the Trust is turning its back on protecting heritage as its core aim towards increasing business and cash flow.
You’d have thought someone might have considered the implications of tunnelling through a UNESCO world heritage site, but the problem is the Trust is run by business people, not historians. I suspect there is a great chance that the land surrounding Stonehenge has more than dirt and mud in it. I would not be at all surprised if the actions planned by the Trust, in collusion with others disturbed ancient artefacts and sights of world importance. But in the giving of their consent, however cautious, they have shown their disregard for the heritage under their care as at Saltram.
As these examples demonstrate, the Trust is moving away from its historic and previously core values. It now appears quite prepared to in some cases risk damage to and in others undermine and destroy the heritage it protects to increase footfall and ultimately profit.
And there is yet one more very sad effect which the new nature of the Trust has had on the organisation, upon its army of loyal volunteers. You will remember the furore over the apparent refusal of some volunteers to wear a ‘rainbow’ badge several months ago. At the time, it was widely stated that this was because the volunteers involved had simply refused to support ‘gay pride’. However, I know from talking to countless volunteers over the past few weeks that the picture across the Trust is much more complex. The feeling that I have picked up on during my talks with these stalwarts of the nations historical landscape is that the ‘rainbow badge debacle’ was, as one very polite elderly lady who took time out of her day to talk to me put it, ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’. She went on to say ‘this had nothing to do with homophobia… it was the result of the growing discontent among volunteers for the Trust caused by their regular and sometimes flagrant disregard for our views and services’. Another, this time former volunteers commented ‘I stopped volunteering because I felt I and other volunteers were being used. I think that is the reason those volunteers refused to wear the gay pride badge; they were fed up of being taken advantage of’. And these views are not isolated. I know for a fact having spoken to many volunteers from several Trust properties that a large majority are dissatisfied with the direction of the Trust and particularly the leadership at a property level. The staff at many of the properties run by the Trust are at best unimaginative and at worst just plain lazy. In many cases, the volunteers are far more motivated, enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the properties than the staff the Trust actually employ!
The Trust’s outlook has become fixated on business rather than heritage, its core values have morphed accordingly to become centred on making money and increasing footfall and its attitude to history has deteriorated to the point where as an organisation, it views its properties as business assets, not national treasures of which it is the custodian. Its life blood, the volunteer corps who keep the house doors open is dissatisfied and in some cases frankly fed-up with being treated with, what I know from my own experience to be a flippant and arguably arrogant attitude like they are a nuisance rather than an asset.
I can only hope and pray the Trust gets its act together and remembers its roots; but frankly, I hold out little hope.