Maurice Davies

Authentic nonsense

20.06.2012
When marketing tie-ins undermine heritage
On Saturday morning I had a harrowing 90 minutes on the phone, trying and failing to book my summer holiday with lastminute.com. I was so rattled by my unsuccessful consumer experience that to clear my head I treated myself to a trip to a garden centre.

I was intrigued to discover the National Trust Landscape Collection. There were four large display panels, all in that National Trust style with its familiar oak-leaf logo, distinctive type face, tasteful greys and greens and wistful photographs of bucolic old houses.

Under the leadership of Fiona Reynolds, the National Trust has done wonderful things, reaching new highs in visitor engagement, leading the way in improving the energy efficiency of historic buildings and strengthening its relationship with local communities. What wonderful contribution could it be offering to the great British back garden?

I picked up a brochure.

The items on sale are described as “authentic paving and landscaping products”. Ah, authenticity. The heart of the curatorial project. An undoubted core value of the heritage industry and museums of all types.

The National Trust spends millions of pounds each year on conservation and authentic restoration, carefully researching what remains from the past, painstakingly sourcing the right materials and investing in traditional skills.

When a National Trust-branded product is described as “authentic”, it sets a high expectation.

So what might “authentic” garden paving be? Being pedantic, it would be genuine old stone or brick. But I realise that’s a tad unrealistic, so perhaps it would be reasonable to expect an accurate reproduction in terms of appearance and materials used.

On the latter point – materials – the brochure is strangely silent and there’s little on the website. The paving is apparently “crafted with meticulous attention to detail”, but I’m pretty sure that most of the products on offer are made in a mould in a factory rather than hewn from a quarry and worked by a skilled stonemason.

Surely they’re at least accurate reproduction of actual originals? It’s not entirely clear. Consider the “Barrington flagstone”, named for the trust’s Barrington Court in Somerset where “local quarried stone is used throughout the estate”.

The things on offer are “reminiscent of those found within the grounds and kitchen garden”. So, are they precise copies of real bits of paving at Barrington Court or not?

The Cotswold Manor range takes “inspiration from the famous National Trust gardens at Hidcote and Snowshill”. The “Hidcote flagstone’ claims to be “full of the character and tradition of Hidcote Manor”.

Most ghastly of all is the description of the Country House range: “A touch of classic garden heritage inspired by the grandeur and formality of the nation’s finest stately homes.”

This could be dismissed as mere misleading marketing tosh (I feel National Trust chairman Simon Jenkins would delight in ridiculing it in one of his feisty newspaper columns). Others may question whether it falls foul of the Trades Description Act.

But I’m alarmed that an organisation so concerned about historical integrity is associating itself with such sloppy thinking about authenticity. It risks undermining one of the key things museums and heritage stand for.


Comments

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27.06.2012, 09:24
Thanks for making some good points, we’ve already picked this up with our licensee Westminster Stone.