What's happening in interpretation at historic houses? - Museums Association

What’s happening in interpretation at historic houses?

This month's edition of Museums Journal carried an edited transcript of a meeting between members of the Museums Association, the National Trust, English Heritage and Historic Royal Palaces. Here is the full transcript…
18-05-2006
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Museums Journal Roundtable Historic House Discussion

SHARON HEAL: I'd like to welcome everybody and say thanks for putting the effort in and coming to today's discussion. And a big thank you to Historic Royal Palaces as well for letting us use this lovely room.

If we just run through the purpose; this roundtable discussion came out of an initial meeting that myself and Simon from Museums Journal had with HRP, about their forward plan, and we discussed new ideas and what's happening in interpretation in historic houses. The idea was to get something of that debate, or start a debate in Museums Journal, and we came up with the idea of having a roundtable discussion. The end result will be that the edited transcripts will go in Museums Journal.

Although we have some questions prepared, we should really see where the discussion takes us and let it flow as much as possible. I think it'd be really useful if we reintroduce ourselves so I'm Sharon Heal, Editor of Museums Journal.

SARAH STANIFORTH: I’m Sarah Staniforth, Historic Properties Director, National Trust.

JAVIER PES: I’m Javier Pes, Editor of Museum Practice magazine.

RUTH TAYLOR: I’m Ruth Taylor. I’m a Learning Advisor for the National Trust. I'm also Chair of the Association for Heritage Interpretation.

EMMA CARVER: I’m Emma Carver. I’m Head of Interpretation at English Heritage.

NIKOLA BURDON: Nikola Burdon, Professional Development and Ethics Coordinator, Museums Association.

DENISE FOSTER: Denise Foster, Head of Learning for National Trust.

MICHAEL WRIGHT: I’m Michael Wright. I'm Head of Marketing for Museums Association.

LUCY WORSLEY: I’m Lucy Worsley and I'm Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces.

SIMON STEPHENS: And I’m Simon Stephens. I'm the Deputy Editor of Museums Journal.

SUSIE WEST: I’m Susie West. I'm Senior Property Historian, English Heritage.

SHARON HEAL: I thought as a kind of “breaking the ground” question, “Which historic houses have done a good job recently at communicating with visitors?” would be a good warm-up if people want to chip in on that straight away? And you’re quite entitled to talk about your own properties, obviously, as well.

DENISE FOSTER: Okay, well, I'll kick off. I'll talk about the Back to Backs in Birmingham. I don't know how aware of the Back to Backs you are, they’re the last courtyard of surviving Back to Back housing in Birmingham and the conservation of that property and the interpretation thereof was a really good combined effort for our region, so our regional services curators and learning people worked really well together to create interpretation that, I think, doesn't feel like a National Trust property.

It really brings the property to life — there’s four particular families that have been bought to life, starting with a Jewish family and ending up with a lovely chap that lives in a property who’s a West Indian tailor. And there are excerpts of oral history as well as some objects that you can touch and the recreation of rooms. And I felt that because it’s got that mixture of “the real person” interpretation as well as the research behind it, I felt it was a very interesting piece of interpretation. I came out of that property feeling invigorated by it. I felt it was really quite an exciting approach.

RUTH TAYLOR: If I lead on from that, one of the things that we try to do in the Trust is to open up the interpretation more and not just have us telling the story to them – visitors. And I think the Back to Backs does that – the new approach which is about sharing interpretation – works really well because it’s interpreted through guided tour, mainly, through the houses. They're very narrow stairs and there’s safety reasons why it has to be guided tours. But the guided tour becomes a discussion between the visitors and the guide.

A lot of local people come to the Back to Backs, so they’ve likely had the experience of living in them themselves, or their parents’ house, and you get this sharing of the stories. And it becomes a whole different discussion so it’s not like a formal guided tour. And you learn as much from the visitors as you do from your guides there. The guides are also local people and they've been trained through a local college so it's been a very good relationship between the community and the house itself. But it's a much more open interpretation, which gives a much more friendly feel to it and it’s much more informal.

NIKOLA BURDON: Can I just ask if the sort of feedback which you're getting from your visitors is then fed into the interpretation of the house at all?

RUTH TAYLOR: Yes, it is. And the other thing that we do, which we’ve also done at other places, is we have a place for people to give their comments, which then gets sent back. But the guides develop the whole time, so they will say, “Oh, yes, we had a visitor the other week who told us about this in their house”, and so it develops on. It's not a static interpretation. And it also has, within the house, some oral interpretation. So it has two places where we’ve recorded all the history from people with experience in the Back to Backs, and so the guides get a rest and you hear a different voice.

And there's one lovely story of a chap who used to get cockroaches in the houses, and he describes how what they did to get rid of cockroaches was build up this enormous fire and really heat the house up so much that the cockroaches all fled to the house next door. So the house next door got fed up with the cockroaches and did exactly the same thing, and all the cockroaches went packing. So you get these lovely personal stories as well and it makes it a very different interpretation.

LUCY WORSLEY: Well, I’ve prepared a little bit that contrasts quite nicely with that one you’ve mentioned, I think. The ones that we were discussing, because we had a little pre-session about this, is Stirling Castle, which we like the way in which they put the process of presenting and restoring objects on display. We thought that was good.

We also liked the work that’s gone in Harewood House, and we thought that their Maids And Mistresses exhibition was good, with the partnership working between sites. And we also think it’s good that they have now got their audios sorted, they’ve got MP3 players, I-Pods, mobile phones and traditional devices and different mediums. And Jersey Heritage Trust, we think, are good for their use of art and performance interpretation, which might be something that we want to talk about.

And, as you said we could show off, I’ll mention Kew Palace, which is our new project that everyone’s working very frantically on at the moment, it finishes in just a couple of weeks. And Kew Palace is not about the re-presentation of an historic interior, it also has story telling, and it's about the dark and awful story of the madness of George III as well as being about wonderful Georgian interiors.

SHARON HEAL: Thank you, Lucy. Anybody else want to sing their own praises?

SARAH STANIFORTH: No, I don't want to sing my own, or our own praises, but I do want to say something about American historic houses interpretation, because I think they’re quite a long way ahead of us, and have been for many years. I think there's an awful lot that we can learn from places like colonial Williamsburg, from the villages, like the Shaker villages, Hancock Shaker Village in New York State, for example, from Jefferson's House, Monticello - particularly thinking about interpretation of slavery there. And I think that we haven't shared probably enough with what's going on in other countries. And I would point to the States as a place that has really been quite sophisticated with understanding its audience, for quite a long time.

SHARON HEAL: Is that a common feeling, that America is ahead of the game?

SUSIE WEST: I think it’s a very different game. I think one of the questions that I had before I came here was, “What is the working definition of a ‘Historic House’ for the purposes of this afternoon?” And is it, as we seem to be hitching in on all domestic properties, possibly? Or is it what is perhaps a particularly English tradition in contrast to 20th century American tradition of presenting a particular type of historic house, which is the great country house. But they would be steaming in from that angle and that, I think, really that the storiography of presenting domestic interiors to visitors in England is dominated by the country house, which might explain why we haven’t looked to the States or North America so much because we’ve had a long and different tradition of our own.

SARAH STANIFORTH: Yes, I see. I'm slightly going to contest the country houses because I know the early furnished houses that came to the Trust were country houses, but I think that a lot of the increase in portfolio more recently, the Back to Backs, to name but one, have had a much broader church of building types, including industry and archaeology. Quarry Bank Mill, is a whole working estate with a number of different historic house types in it and the mill itself.
So I think you're right that the roots of opening houses to the public, in this country, lies with the country houses and the castles and, more recently, the palaces. But we are now dealing with a much broader type of offer for the public and therefore I think you've got the country houses in the States as well — Monticello, of course, is Jefferson’s country house, so I don't quite see the distinction …

SUSIE WEST: Well, perhaps I can develop that, because, very briefly, to say that one of the differences between the States and us, historically, is of course a very different sense of a class-based society. And it is, if I can make the assertion, that most of our business of presenting historic houses has been initially channelled through the country house.

However, people’s portfolios have then expanded, we are responding to the particular historical specificities of particularly what happened in the 20th century, in terms of our economy and social restructuring, and that has given us a particular cache of almost redundant country houses to deal with. But it's also set up our visitors, perhaps, to see that experience as a thing on its own and I’d be very interested to know if people have any opinions on how visitors translate visiting a traditional country house with a more recent new experience of a much smaller scale domestic interior. Because I think, to my mind, I would have to treat those very differently – I don't see them as a seamless continuum.

DENISE FOSTER: I think that there was a great passion for visiting the traditional country house that you've talked about. That was about getting a peek into a world that people had been excluded from and I don't think – because there have been 20, 30, 40 years of access to places – that exclusivity is still there, in the same way, and people don’t feel the same urge to go and stand and stare in awe. Which is why, when particularly our acquisitions more recently in the Trust have moved into acquiring places that have a resonance with people from all sorts of walks of life. I think that reflects what you're trying to say. So Quarry Bank Mill, that's had a larger relevance with the population of Manchester, which of course entirely exists, at the size it does today, because of the cotton industry. I know exactly what you are saying but perhaps come at it from a slightly different perspective, but I don’t think people are driven to stand and stare in awe in the same way.

SUSIE WEST: I don’t think I was trying to suggest that, but I think, professionally, I am curious as to whether the academic typology that you might want to set up, which runs the gamut of the small domestic interior, the mill worker’s terraced house or whatever, up to the most palatial country house. There is a typology there and when you work with it, you do kind of acknowledge to yourself that you're moving between incredibly different constructs. And my question is really, “How much is a general visitor thinking about that?”
because we’re discussing them – we seem to be starting off to discuss them all as on a single continuum.

LUCY WORSLEY: I think I agree with you that they’re different, but it seems to me that you're incredibly lucky to have something like the Back to Backs, because it’s my understanding from research into the effectiveness of live interpretation that people like something that’s in the more immediate past that they can talk about what old times were like with their grandparents, that sort of thing, whereas a royal palace is a thousand years old and about as off-putting and as intimidating as you can get as a building type. So it seems to me that we’ve got a really difficult task to do because we’ve got royal palaces.

We can't go and acquire some Back to Backs, unfortunately. We need to crack tough nuts as well and that, to me, is our really big challenge. I heard a really interesting presentation at the Public History Conference a couple of weeks ago and a lady from Yorkshire did a presentation about definitions of authenticity, and I was shocked. I thought it was all about “Is this the original fabric? Have we done this restoration accurately?” But she was saying that people defined an authentic experience as something where they'd been with their friends and they'd been talking and they'd been living their lives, if you like. So, outdoor museums and coalmining experiences were more authentic than a country house experience. So how can we get that in all of the 1,500 rooms of Hampton Court Palace?

RUTH TAYLOR: But if the houses are very different, the principles of interpretation are the same, and it’s about following those principles and knowing your audiences and what context they come in with, so that you can find something that hooks them in and it's not such a big leap that they can’t actually make a link between their own lives and what they're seeing. It's having strong, clear themes and stories so it's story telling. It's telling the story of the place, and there’s strong stories in the palace just as well as there are in a miner's cottage, and then using things which worked well, like the person-to-person interpretation that Denise has already mentioned.

Three of the award winners in the Interpret Britain awards this past year were places that used person-to-person interpretation. So, there was Charleston, which is the home of the Bloomsbury Group in Sussex, they produced a new guided tour which was all about the domestic life. They'd researched it themselves, they’d put it all together, they'd had it all checked by experts and it was a really good tour that helped the people to connect with the house. Wordsworth House, National Trust in Cockermouth, which is the home of William Wordsworth, again, they thought about the servants in the house and it's the servants making the bustle – doing the work in the kitchen that people link up to. So, it’s finding those links and having a really strong story to then put the other pegs on so that they go away having picked something up.

DENISE FOSTER: One of the reasons Wordsworth has been so successful is that a kind of mixture of the live interpretation and the room steward approach and I understand that they’re largely third person. I understand that at the heart of the house is also a working kitchen that is still creating food and filling the house with the smells and making the house feel alive, and actually that's what the visitors are really responding to, because it feels like a living and breathing home. So, it is about the sort of cultural capital that we’ve just talked about and what people bring to the table, so to speak, themselves. And that’s certainly why that place has been so successful.

JAVIER PES: My feeling is often historic places are really quite bad at giving a sense of history. Not in the history of the house, we all know it was built in this date and that's very good, but what you never really get a sense of is, “When did something historic happen here?” There was a house I was reading about in the States, in Massachusetts, it was a colonial house and it sold itself on the colonial house.

You go back a step in time, it's awfully elegant, but they realised that wasn't really cutting the mustard, so they looked at it and said, “Well, actually what happened to this house during the War of Independence?” It was owned by a loyalist; had a teenage daughter who had a whale of a time with all these English officers, and there was a battle fought at the end of the garden, and they really focused it all around the day, the moment that history had happened on that doorstep. Historic royal palaces and many other sites, have to choose which moment in history to concentrate on, and that's when you've got to weigh up what makes people interested. Was it Henry VIII or was it Elizabeth II?.

SHARON HEAL: Yes, I think that kind of leads to one of the questions which is about how you interpret the spirit of the historic house or get that day in time, and how you do that to a modern audience.

LUCY WORSLEY: Could I just get in my “show off” and then I can get it out of my system? You really rang a bell for me about Kew Palace because Kew is an early 17th-century house, with Georgian alterations and the time in which George III, lived there was really short. And as you go round Kew, you’ll first of all go into this little anteroom with linen-fold panelling and we could begin with that room by saying, “This is a 17th century house, this panelling has been brought here from an even earlier house. This is the start of the chronological stories”.

And we’re not doing that, we’re just having this wonderful wax head of George III – it'll be quite dramatic really because it was made by the original Madame Tussaud who fled from France after the Revolution. It’s the most creepy object you've ever seen and there will be a broadcast of sounds, a monologue of George III. We know a lot about the way he spoke, he had this very characteristic way of speaking. And that will be your first experience, you’re coming to George's house in the period 1804 of his occupation, and the chronology of the house is secondary to this feeling that history happened here. This is the key part of our presentation, really, I think. I think it's worked. I think you'll like it.

SARAH STANIFORTH: But that’s the really tantalising thing about so many historic properties because many of them have more than one of those moments and that gives you a huge opportunity for interpreting in different ways at different times. And, you know, one of the challenges is to keep up interest in houses because people sort of think, “Kew palace does that”, “Wordsworth House has done that”. If you can actually refresh the interpretation by telling a different story at a different time, then that is a huge advantage.

LUCY WORSLEY: So I think it’s still saying the same thing but you pick what that story you're telling is at a particular time.

SARAH STANIFORTH: It's a sort of editing, isn't it?

RUTH TAYLOR: You could widen that story. One of the stories that is now being told more is the conservation-in-action story. At Tyntesfield as we’re getting it ready and conserved, we’re telling the story of what's actually happening in front of your very eyes – rather than behind the scenes – people can see it actually in front of their eyes and understand what it takes to look after these houses. So, you’ve got not just the historical stories but you've got the in-action story of what's happening now.

SHARON HEAL: Research shows that visitors are really interested in that conservation in-action but does that distract from the real story, the key moment in history?

RUTH TAYLOR: No, it's the taking more seriously about adding on to the stories. So you've got your basic historical story but it’s adding on other things so that, for repeat visitors, there’s something different every time.

SARAH STANIFORTH: Many audiences find it easier to relate to the people, you know, who either worked in the houses in the past or even work in the houses now. Your housekeepers at Hampton Court are working all the time.

DENISE FOSTER: A colleague of mine was telling me about how Hardwick Hall has recently refreshed its interpretation, because what they’ve discovered was that the visitors didn't really understand that it was Bess of Hardwick’s house, and why she was an interesting figure.
And so they've now created an exhibition of different aspects of Elizabethan life, but they've also put Bess at the centre. Visitor feedback is much more positive because they’re now going away with some ideas about what the fantastically interesting figure Bess was – who was equal in stature to Elizabeth I. So, that theme, that story, has really changed the way people experience Hardwick.

EMMA CARVER: Are we really just talking about evidence of interpretation planning? As opposed to there not being any?

DENISE FOSTER: I think we could well be, I think HLF have had a very positive role to play in getting organisations to plan for interpretation much better, because of the way that you have to apply for grants nowadays in order to put together an audience plan to work out the development plan and then interpretation, and the conservation plan, and I think that they’ve really pushed us to think about it as a central part of any big project that we might undertake now.

EMMA CARVER: But it may also explain why some of the recent projects that we’ve been talking about are much more successful than presumably what you had in mind when you had your initial discussion which brought us here today, You must have felt that they were changing but perhaps you weren't quite sure how?

SHARON HEAL: It’s to get some flesh on the bones of an idea that there was this change in interpretation in historic houses. And I’ve got some questions for later on about the differences and similarities in the way museums operate and historic house venues operate, but it was driven really by HRP and the discussion that we had with us about how things were changing at the palaces.

LUCY WORSLEY: Well, I’m a curator and I think that curatorship is changing. It must. It’s a necessity, It’s changing, from being something that is more to do with research and something that's more to do with communication. And I think that is happening generally and I'm wondering what the implications of this are for historic houses?

It seems to me that we don’t often get these opportunities for comments like this, and to thrash out what this means for us. And when I think of historic houses, I do generally think of what I experienced on the summer school ten years ago, and that just didn't include things like the Back to Backs, and it’s salutary to remind ourselves of all these new and exciting things that are going on under the historic house umbrella.

NIKOLA BURDON: Mentioning the more modern properties that are now coming under this umbrella I think, “I wonder whether this is the link to the more modern audiences?” If the modern properties are actually easier to associate with the modern audience, then is there some connection that can be taken between that property and perhaps a more historic property? You know, by taking themes, for instance. I’m interested to see how much cross-property working there is, and whether that is a way of drawing visitors to a number of properties.

RUTH TAYLOR: Well, I guess we were talking about the “spirit of place” and how that links audiences and we’ve had a lot of success with new audiences in very traditional historic properties. And it's been about going out to the audiences and getting them involved. We had a project at Kedleston Hall, which has got an Indian Museum in it, and we worked at 20 properties actually and it’s called The Untold Story. It was an HLF-funded project, and the whole aim of the project was to involve audiences who were local to the property, who wouldn't normally visit.

And so we linked with an Asian group of women local to Kedleston and we found that actually there were huge resonances between them and the property, in particular the Indian Museum. The women wrote poems based on their experiences in the museum with the objects. And it was through getting involved with the property and then putting their own interpretation on the property that they can now come and visit again and again, and it means something to them. But it was getting past that barrier, it’s not just about modern properties having a link, you can make links through the older properties but you have to find the way in to help people, to have meaning for them.

DENISE FOSTER: But Kedleston was the home of Lord Curzon, so it carries some not necessarily terribly positive resonances for people of Indian and Pakistani heritage, but it's very interesting that apparently the groups that we worked with had a lot of things to teach us about the state of things in the Indian Museum. So for example, there were objects of different faiths just laid together not in the right way. And so we’ve learned through that so when we’re refreshing the interpretation there, that is going to push our own factors on.

But what was interesting, I think so particularly with Kedleston, was that the connection that was made with Lady Curzon, and in particular with a dress made of peacock feathers, and that's what they based their poems on. They went with Debjani Chatterjee who’s an eminent Indian poet and it was the commonality in terms of the human experience as well that really kind of brought that alive.

And, I think, has had a real human impact on the people that work at the property about how they think about interpreting the collection that they've got there, and how they work with different visitors and what they can do to encourage people from all sorts of different places to visit and to share with us. So, interpretation just being us telling people is moving on, to it becoming an exchange where we enrich one another through lots of different means.

LUCY WORSLEY: Would you go so far as to say as that, “The point of the interpretation’s not to tell information but to actually change people’s lives”? Which is what I think.

DENISE FOSTER: Yes, that's what I think. At its very best, it has that ability to transform.

SHARON HEAL: Does everybody agree with that?

DENISE FOSTER: Transformational for a few, inspiring for many.

SARAH STANIFORTH: I just wonder how Lucy’s aspirations for transformation, how universal among the audience you'd hope that would be?

LUCY WORSLEY: Personally, I want everyone to be transformed the whole time. But we have one of the Clore fellows working with us at the moment, he's doing an audience development plan for Kensington Palace and he's made the point very cogently, I think, that you can’t concentrate all your financial resources on the most difficult to reach 2 per cent of your non-visitors and he’s been encouraging – he’s brought a note of realism to the proceedings, I think. And what's difficult for us is deciding exactly how far we’re going to go in transforming our audience and how far we're going to go in transforming people once they get to us. So we can't lose that idea.

NIKOLA BURDON: I don’t think that visitors come to be transformed.

EMMA CARVER: Laura Jane Smith did a project involving three of our properties last year looking at people, at audiences who go to visit country houses. Her work is going to be published this summer in her book. What it did demonstrate to someone who is charged with interpreting these properties is that we have some very unimaginative answers which, to me, means that people are not being challenged and it's very uninformed, and just not really engaged with the property at all.

So, I thought that was very revealing, and a real “laying down the gauntlet” for us and the other house owners, to really think about how to involve people and how to engage them in the story of those big houses. It wasn't that they hadn’t had a nice time it's just that intellectually they had not registered the experience at all. So, I think that the door is wide open to explore different ways, particularly for this kind of property, not so much the sort of thing we’ve been talking about, but the big country house has really got to have a complete overhaul in terms of how it is presented to the visitor, and the challenge is there. It’s very exciting.

DENISE FOSTER: Yes, I think it is an exciting field and I think that research will reflect my own feelings. That is, that I think the vast majority of visitors you will find in a Trust property, on a traditional Trust property weekend, are there for a nice time. They're not there to have transformative experiences.

SHARON HEAL: Is there anything wrong with that?

DENISE FOSTER: No, there’s not. I think that that that's perfectly valid and before I worked for the Trust that's why I went, but I would also go to hoover up history but that’s my own personal experience. So, I think that there are some great challenges ahead for us in how to address those issues.

But one of the things that we’re hopefully going to do, which I was talking to Sharon about earlier, is about our room stewards. Our room stewards have been charged in the past with essentially ensuring the security of the rooms that they take care of and we want to transform that – you've got a human resource there and we want to transform that into making that a much more interactive experience.

RUTH TAYLOR: Yes, I just wanted to say, going back to the visitors and what they do, they come in for a nice day out. We did a piece of research where we asked people whether they'd come to learn anything, and we found that 7 per cent came wanting to learn something. So, they were basically there for a nice day out. But when we did the exit interviews and asked them what they’d learnt, 78 per cent said they'd learnt something. So, in fact, we are transforming their lives.

They are gaining something more than that nice day out from that visit and I think that's just the start, and I think there's a lot more to it. It's about engaging the emotions and enriching their lives but, yes, I would say the same as Lucy, that there's much more in there. I did a whole PhD on behaviour change and there’s all sorts of different ways that we might want to change people’s behaviours in an historic house setting. For instance, just in understanding the conservation of it more, you know, what you can and can’t touch and persuading them not to touch rather than telling them not to touch, and why it is that we ask them not to touch. But there's a whole lot more than that that could be done.

NIKOLA BURDON: Do you think you’re getting a completely different visitor to an historic house in the countryside compared to one of the more modern properties in the middle of a city, for instance, with easy access? Purely because of the effort of having to get out to that property in terms of access and their expectations of the day because they're going out there for a nice day, probably to combine it with a nice walk in the countryside, so do you think you're getting a different type of visitor, depending on location?

DENISE FOSTER: I don’t think we’ve got any evidence that we are getting a different type of visitor at the different locations in the way that perhaps you're suggesting. I think that somewhere like the Back to Backs does attract more visitors who perhaps would not be part of our ordinary visitor profile. Just because of, I think, the simple things like it's a five-minute walk from Birmingham New Street station, and because of the links that the property made with South Birmingham College, so the volunteers, or the tour guides, have all undertaken a 12-week accredited course with South Birmingham College, which is situated in a really urban environment, so it has changed our visitor profile a bit there. But I don't think we’ve fully tracked it but I certainly don't think it's created a seismic shift. I think that it’s the beginning of small steps to move towards broadening our appeal to a wider audience.

SHARON HEAL: I think we’ve kind of got the point about interpretation for new and diverse audiences now. There are a couple of questions, on how do we design interpretation to reach diverse new audience, and who doesn't visit historic house venues. Shall we start with who doesn't visit? I’m sure you've got lists.

DENISE FOSTER: Well people without cars would struggle. That's a real issue for us. If you don't have access to a car, it is quite a challenge. There's some places where we’ve got transport schemes set up, say, for example, Devils’ Dyke, which is a countryside site on the South Downs that has got a transport link which is really good. It certainly increases the amount of visitors that we get up there, but your average Trust property is quite tricky to get to on public transport.

EMMA CARVER: It keeps changing. There is a shift and I would say that, probably you’ll know better than me, but I would have thought it was more evident in the Trust profile over, say, the last five years. I would have thought that you were really making a lot of headway in the terms of changing audiences.

RUTH TAYLOR: We are, through, trying to increase access and make places more accessible, both intellectually as well as physically. And through some of the schemes, some of the people that wouldn't visit as a normal visitor will come. Young people come in school parties. We’ve seen what we can do at Tyntesfield, what we've done to work with groups of people that wouldn’t normally visit a property to deliberately enhance them as new audiences and find ways of them being interested in what we're doing, by involving them in the properties. So, yes, it's on the project stack.

EMMA CARVER: But is it on the scale of the membership as well? I would have thought that inroads might have been made.

SHARON HEAL: Does the membership reflect proportionally changes in visitors’ profiles?

SARAH STANIFORTH: Oh yes, because a very large percentage of our visitors are members. The Attingham Report has got some interesting recommendations on interpretation and on multicultural interpretation, which could address some of the missing visitors that we do know exist at the moment. I mean, each site should develop multi-layered and holistic interpretations encouraging local historical architectural and artistic specialists and I draw particular attention to the potential of multicultural interpretation of both sites and objects.

And then the heritage sector should strategically acquire the knowledge and skills needed to reach out and engage with new audiences. I think, in a way, that's one of the things that we can address through this discussion. Because I think we’ve all got some experience; The Untold Story, which we've already mentioned, is one route.

DENISE FOSTER: And in the West Midlands region had a project planning grant from the HLF for a project called Whose Story, which is specifically set up to address interpretation through engaging with black and minority ethnic communities and has, through some of the work that has been done with a variety of different groups, focus groups and what have you.

We’ve now got some hard evidence to back up something which is a personal hobby horse of mine, which is people will come when they see themselves reflected, or parts of themselves, or parts of their heritage, reflected in your offer. Now, if you were only interpreting a particular aspect of history that then excludes everybody else, then your visitor profile will not change and will not expand. And I think that that is the big challenge for the historic house sector that we need to meaningfully engage with, which means we've probably got to engage with some quite difficult stories as well.

SHARON HEAL: Do others agree?

EMMA CARVER: I just wanted to mention something about the way that we’re structured. It goes back to, I think, probably the Trust, and I'm not sure about HRP, but the way the biggest inroads are happening at the moment, in my view, is through events, and that in turn is reaching audiences who would not normally come in. It's all project-based. And so, with particular groups of people, it’s getting some really interesting and good results. I think, probably, that the next thing, the next stage, if you like, is to build on that so that what we're presenting in terms of just the general visitor, not the visitor that’s been focused on, trying to broaden their horizons as well.

So all I’m saying really is not to forget the kind of interpretation offer which is actually very usually in the form of permanent exhibitions or provision, which is not perhaps changed so readily and may be there for some time. And one would hope in the next few years that this is changed and updated and much more challenging, just to people who have arrived rather than have arrived through projects.

DENISE FOSTER: There's been a big project on access at Whitley Court, which is, of course, unfinished – the access project there is looking at various groups of people in order to build up a relationship with them in terms of how they make their way around the property. We are doing a joint conference with English Heritage there in Manchester on 1 November and 2 November which is called “Your Place Or Mine?” which is two days of looking at how to engage diverse audiences with heritage, based on things both organisations have learned through the different projects that we’ve undertaken.

RUTH TAYLOR: And then there’s the Interpret Britain award – nine awards which AHI run each year. This year a special award category is the priority group so it's for projects that involved people with physical disabilities, people from C2DE groups and people from black or minority ethnic backgrounds, so places that have been involved in those sort of projects can put them forward for an award. So that should throw up to more examples, which people can learn from by the end of the year.

SUSIE WEST: Can I ask a question? Because this isn’t my area of expertise at all but it’s my perception that the next trick, the next level to go to, if you like, would be keeping up a continuous link with groups?

DENISE FOSTER: I agree, I think that’s a big challenge for the sector, isn't it? We need to move away from that project-based approach, which is kind of funding-led really, isn’t it? Into embedding in our early practice so that we do continue links with community who keep then going, and that for us will be Untold Story where the really big challenge is keeping the links that we’ve made and the expectations that we've created with 18 different user groups at those properties going. And that's what we’re looking at, at the moment, of how to really build on them and maintain them so that people do feel a long-term connection with the place, that they will then care about and will pass on to their friends and colleagues and family so it's a really big challenge.

NIKOLA BURDON: I would have thought that a big inroad for English Heritage is archaeology, because it’s something that appeals to all ages and all people. Groups such as the Young Archaeologists around the country tend to have a big mix of membership. What kind of work have you done with those groups?

EMMA CARVER: Well, there was a project in Swindon last year called the Groundswell Project, which was a community archaeology project, and then there was a lot of local work done in conjunction with that. People got involved. I think that we’re slightly spreading the net maybe a little bit too wide. I mean, certainly excavation at an historic property always causes a stir and brings in perhaps different sorts of people, people who would be attracted to it, who perhaps wouldn't go on the first day, and anything like that would go to spark someone’s interest.

NIKOLA BURDON: I think there's a great link. I went with the Young Archaeologists group that I'd spoken to in Hackney to Sir John Soane’s Museum and they just absolutely loved it and they didn't care who had lived there but they loved the objects, and they loved discovering what was around the next corner, and they really picked up on things like light and the windows there …

LUCY WORSLEY: That’s interesting because it works with practically no interpretation.

JAVIER PES: We’re talking about the atmosphere that these places have and often if you museum-ify it, you kill it. And that’s the great strength of these places where it’s so enormous and you're in these unusual rooms and there’s a sense of history. But what’s always a disappointment, always a killer for me, is when you get the same old stories being told, “This is the kitchen, this is the dining room, this is the hall, have a look around; this is the bedroom”.

It's not actually why this one is particularly interesting, why this one’s special. It's just like in a museum where you go, “These are Iron Age finds. This is our World War II collection”. It’s so stereotypical and the interesting places are the ones where they say, “Actually, you know, we all know it’s a bedroom, we all know it's a kitchen” if they do something much more interesting with it. Whether it is a key to the story of, you know, a scandal…

LUCY WORSLEY: I think I know what you mean. It’s lost a lot of the significance. The Conservation Plan, which as anyone who has been involved in one, it is quite a turgid bureaucratic sort of process and you have to cover absolutely every single base, and sometimes you end up with a sort of grey answer, because you’ve asked so many different scholars for their favourite little bit of significance. It goes back to what I was telling you about editing, sometimes you’ve got to have the confidence to say, “Right, we did the Conservation Plan, we did all of that research, this is the bit we’re going to concentrate on”.

SARAH STANIFORTH: Well, we do that in a different way because you have the Conservation Plan, which is the quite academic document which is, in the opinion of the experts, “This is what is architecturally significant, this is what is artistically significant, this is what’s historically significant”. And then you have the statement of significance which is built up with the community consultation. So, one of the answers about how you continue to engage new audiences that have been identified possibly through projects, is that, assuming that they are members of the local community, that they come in and they participate in the process of identifying the significance of the property.

Because they will very often find different significances, you know, maybe something really obvious that the experts wouldn’t spot. Like, “We think this park is really significant because we walk our dogs in it”. In a way that’s motherhood and apple pie but if that’s what’s important to them then we try and recognise that and then you start to have ownership because then, at your peril, do you make the park a big interpretation experience.

DENISE FOSTER: Our annual visitor survey is a salutary experience for us as well I think because of the top reason people visit – every single time it’s the garden. I think history of a place comes about fourth, doesn’t it? It’s certainly not the top reason that people visit – the garden is.

SHARON HEAL: We could mix up the questions now and do the one on landscaping, environment and significance and how we interpret that.

RUTH TAYLOR: Just before you do that, just going back to Javier’s point about, “And it’s another bedroom, it’s another kitchen”. I think it’s because, in the past, historic houses have been interpreted from one perspective and actually what this is, is multiple perspectives. This is where you actually want the local person’s view on what the house was to them when they were living down the road.

JAVIER PES: I think that’s what you think of the film Gosford Park, you know, where it goes around throughout the house, the kitchens. Seeing a place through different eyes is the great potential for all these places, whether it’s the tradesman’s entrance, the servants’ quarter, the master bedroom or whatever. That’s when historic houses are quite clever and creative.

RUTH TAYLOR: You could do two tours. We do our children’s guide by taking a very different person and showing a very different view on the places as well. It’s actually more of a child’s eye view.

EMMA CARVER: Leading on from your point about can you have too many houses. Is there a saturation point as well which isn’t just to do with the different angles but how many angles are there realistically? I just wondered if anyone had any thoughts on that. There are now so many historic houses open to the public and presenting themselves as an experience to visitors. Are there that many different permutations in terms of the experience?

DENISE FOSTER: I was interested that you’ve raised Charleston, which I visited when I lived in Brighton, before I worked for Charleston before I started to become immersed in that awful “museum speak” that you do in this sector. And I found it a really refreshing experience because you get a real sense of the people who’ve lived there and all the fantastically exciting things they got up to and the mark they’d made on the place but that’s because it is absolutely unique.

It isn’t, as you possibly inferred, is that all of these great families with their great big houses were slavishly copying each other, to some extent, having great collections that came from similar places. So, I think there is a sort of element of sameness, and that’s coming at it from a general visitor point of view because I couldn’t tell you what’s vastly significant about a specific room. Most visitors just go in for that sort of place and, as you say, once you’ve been to several then there is possibly a saturation point.

SHARON HEAL: Lucy, is one royal palace much like another royal palace?

LUCY WORSLEY: No, I wouldn’t say they were. I wouldn’t say that there’s too many houses, either, I think that’s just an encouragement to us to do more extreme different things with them to make them contrast more. The experience isn’t just about learning some historical facts, is it? It’s about spending time with your family, interacting with your friends, sitting down eating, drinking, reading, learning stuff that’s not so place specific that there isn’t room for a whole lot more of it.

SARAH STANIFORTH: Well, I have to say I’m worried going forward because there’s bottom line stuff here as well and there is a lot of competition around. The fact is, four out of five National Trust properties operate at a loss and the reason that we survive and, indeed at the moment, are economically viable is because of our membership. If there was someone here from the Historic Houses Association they would be saying, “We really struggle to make ends meet”.

We have to be realistic about what the future will bring and the future will make it more difficult for people to get to historic houses in the countryside, because people won’t be able to afford to get there in their cars because they won’t be able to afford fuel.

So, we are going to have to make some hard choices about how we use these houses in the future. And it may be that opening to the public is not the answer for them because when we went through the period that was marked by the destruction of the country house exhibition at the V&A, which was 30 years ago, that was the crisis for historic houses and their future.

Many of them were demolished at that time because they didn’t have sufficient significance to be opened as a visitor attraction or museum, and they couldn’t find any economically viable use for them. Now, we’ve had a period of boom during the last decades of the 20th Century with a real increase in leisure – with people with the disposable money and the means to get to these houses.

We’ve been very cushioned by that, so, I think you’re absolutely right, Emma, to question if, going forward, we’ve got too many historic houses and that we may need to make some very difficult decisions about the ones that remain open to the public and those that perhaps we find some other sort of use for. It could perfectly well be an educational use, a learning use, but not the convention of open the doors and expect people to come.

LUCY WORSLEY: I think this is an opportunity though, because the next thing, as I understand it, is the economy of experience where people sell each other memories, and I think I’ve said this to you before, haven’t I? This is the future of retail and shopping, you won’t go to the shops to buy something, you’ll go there to have a nice day out with your friends.

That makes country houses incredibly, potentially valuable because they’re real things, they’re real places and they have the potential for providing people with really remarkable memories that they won’t be able to get anywhere else because it’s the real object. So, I think that that’s incredibly important and encouraging for us that we are the alternative to shopping, if you like which, as we know is a native leisure activity now.

SIMON STEPHENS: People have still got to get there, that’s the thing, though, isn’t it? That’s the thing you can’t get away from that people are going to have to get these properties and it is going to become more difficult, there’s no doubt about it.

LUCY WORSLEY: They’re the centre of local economies, aren’t they? Localism is a massive thing now, isn’t it?

SARAH STANIFORTH: That’s a very good point about the role of these places in the local communities because that’s where they started. The bankers for many villages - and some of those villages have now grown into towns - was the big house and the local economy and all the farms grew up around the house. How do we interpret conservation sustainability issues? This really gets to the nub of what sustainability is. (a) Were the houses ever sustainable? Possibly not, because most of them have become seriously unsustainable, but there is something about that local economy that was generated through the big house and what that means in a contemporary society. Can these places become the centre of the community again? The church is no longer the centre of the community but this offers a facility.

More and more – I mean, the dog walking thing sounds trivial but actually, I was at Castle Coole yesterday in Northern Ireland. Enniskillen does not have a public park. Castle Coole, before it came to the National Trust in 1961, was a private place from which the local population were excluded. Now, it is the park for Enniskillen and people are coming in and they’re walking their dogs and they’re jogging and it’s their amenity. Maybe we should be focusing more on local communities not only in a sort of – I don’t want to say, “philanthropic sense” because that sounds too patronising, but
recognising that we are providing a facility beyond the learning experience or the enjoyment but actually a place that belongs to people.

SHARON HEAL: How embedded are historic house museums or venues in the local communities?

SUSIE WEST: Well, they can be really contested and I’ll give you the interesting example of Chiswick House, where English Heritage do not own or control the grounds. We’ve been talking in other contexts in the course of today’s discussion about a kind of fragmented and slightly partial kind of coming together of different interest groups from different standpoints, and we’ve presented this as entirely positive.

But there are dangers and I think one of the dangers is when a dominant interest group, in this case not the ivory tower boffins – which I might be accused of being – but a different interest group who happen to be dog walkers as well – have produced a number of tensions in what is supposed to be a genuine community and collective approach to improving the asset – that is the grounds around Chiswick.

So, it’s not without perils and tensions. The idea of giving a community the idea that it does have some kind of moral ownership for the property is right, in terms of making it sustainable, making it embedded, making it relevant to them as tax payers. But equally it needs to be managed in such a way that accountabilities are also made very clear, and the demarcation between the stories that we might ultimately select as being significant are ones that we are allowed to tell which is, you know, we haven’t discussed any idea of changing standards of socially acceptable stories.

But presumably we would agree that’s moved on incredibly since the 1950s, when the first clutch of country houses were really thrown open. And that is why we are talking about slavery in this year – perhaps that would have been brushed under the carpet back in the previous decade. So I’m just saying tensions also and contested interest groups and a certain middle class moral majority is something we do have to grapple with when we talk about historic houses.

SHARON HEAL: Just picking on that one very specific point, are we, as in historic house venues, talking about slavery?

DENISE FOSTER: We’re certainly planning what we hope to do for 2007. We’re very aware that it’s a subject that we’ve really not grappled with properly yet, and it is an area that we really need to get to grips with. At the same time I think that it is still an incredibly powerfully sensitive topic that has real meaning for large sections of the population.

So, it’s not something we need to do from a didactic approach, it’s something that takes building up the community links and the people to people links in order to do it successfully. I think that we have a long way to go to move our practice on to the point of being experts so we see something that is – it’s a really good catalyst to actually move our practice on in that area, in that respect.

I think actually the public are incredibly interested – one of the main questions we get asked or people get asked at that property is, “How did they make their cash” and, “How could they afford all this wonderful art and the books by the yard that fill the library”. So, I think it’s a really important issue and I also think that actually one of the things we don’t do very well – I’m talking about the sector in general, is engage with the colonial history of the UK and how all these links were made with other countries and how we came to have all these amazing artefacts that have remained from all over the world or raw material was sourced from all over the world or influenced by so many different diverse cultures.

I think it’s incredibly exciting and interesting and will create another phase in interpretation that will move us from what Javier was talking about in terms of, “This is the dining room, and…”. So, I think 2007 really provokes the whole sector to look at the wider stories that are inherent in Britain’s trade around the world and colonisation.

NIKOLA BURDON: And these are the types of stories that people are going to be able to associate with and they’re going to be really interested in as well which in turn will hopefully bring in a different type of visitor.

DENISE FOSTER: Absolutely and hopefully it will create much richer dialogues in the future. I think for 2007 one of the really big outcomes I would like to see is that the Trust and our visitors, our staff volunteers in particular, that we learn lots of things around engagements and around bringing all of these things to the fore. So, I think it’s a very exciting challenge.

NIKOLA BURDON: I think what you’ve been saying, and I think what Sarah was saying about the whole community and involving the community and perhaps reassessing the purpose of some historic houses, sounds all really exciting. I think just because it might not be an easy ride all the time and it will create tensions and, of course, there’s going to be debate but actually when you have debate it gives people a lot more ownership about it and they suddenly have an opinion on it and they suddenly feel all passionate about it.

RUTH TAYLOR: We have started to engage in some debate and the work house is a very good example of where we tackled what was a very difficult issue about what is poverty and what is poverty in the present day? I was really struck, not by necessarily the workhouse – the idea of the workhouse is that it’s not a comfortable experience. It’s not your usual enjoying your country house and seeing all the finery. The rooms are kept deliberately bleak and it shows the stark living that was there.

At the end there’s a little computer interactive and it asks you questions like, “Would you feel you were in poverty if you couldn’t buy a bunch of flowers or if you didn’t have television?” And it goes through these questions and it really makes you think about, “Okay, what’s poverty to me, but what’s poverty to someone without an income?” I think it goes back to Lucy’s point about challenging people and changing them. I think that’s a place where we are trying to do that and learning from that.

NIKOLA BURDON: I’m not sure whether it’s the changing them, it’s allowing them to have that debate and enabling them to have that debate. That’s something that museums have done quite well recently, they’ve acted as a forum in which to have these kind of quite challenging, quite difficult debates and I think that’s perhaps something where historic houses could learn from that and take on board.

SHARON HEAL: Can we just move on to that question about how historic houses can learn from museums? What are the differences and what can museums learn from historic house venues as well?

SARAH STANIFORTH: Can I just say something about what we understand about the difference between museums and historic houses? I do think that’s a good starting point because an awful lot of our historic houses are museums. I don’t see museums here and historic houses there but I acknowledge there are differences and I think it’s just worth pinning down what the real differences are.

For me, the difference is that the building is our largest artefact and on the whole, in museums, it’s about collections and history and only occasionally is it the building there are many museums in very significant buildings but the building is there to service the collection.
The difference with historic houses is that we have a collection, in context, very often for which it was made or by definition, collected. And furthermore, that building is in its garden and its park and it’s part of the wider landscape and that whole, that total ensemble is a very, very important aspect of interpretation in historic houses.

RUTH TAYLOR: Another aspect of that is that it was peopled and so, it’s the lives of the people that were in the houses and events happened. There’s this theory called, “The exact spot theory” so people can go and see the exact spots something happened and that’s something that is completely different from a museum, you don’t get that in a museum. So, the object is as well as being in context have a use and purpose – they were in use in the historic house.

DENISE FOSTER: I think one of the freedoms museums have that we can learn from, in terms of what you were saying, Sarah, is that because those objects don’t carry the weight of a whole house in that context behind them, that people are then freer to bring a variety of their own different associations and interpretations to them.

And it’s kind of easier to perhaps make them more something people can test and play with and push things. I think that’s a bit hard and we don’t quite have the same freedom in some respects to do that. It’s harder for us to do that. I think we can learn from some techniques, certainly, that museums have used.

LUCY WORSLEY: What I just thought when you said that museums enable you to have a debate and they’ve encouraged it, what came to my mind was our exhibition about Guy Fawkes which is still in the White Tower and it’s about religious terrorism in the 17th Century and we’ve been planning it for a couple of years. Then along came the July bombings last year and some people said, “Oh, you’ve got a display on religious terrorism, you’re jumping on to the bandwagon aren’t you?” I thought, “How crazy is that?” It’s our job, isn’t it, to talk about current issues as well as past ones?

SHARON HEAL: I know at St Mungos in Glasgow they have had that discussion on martyrdom and it’s a really challenging topic but they’ve conducted that in the community.

EMMA CARVER: That’s a museum of religious life, isn’t it?

SHARON HEAL: Yes, so obviously it’s in the context of their collection and their remit as well. In terms of interpretation, which is one of the main themes of the discussion today, what’s the difference between historic houses and museums?

LUCY WORSLEY: Often we find that we want to do something that’s not just a historic room recreation, we want to explore new media that are appropriate to a building or to an artefact. We have found that – we put out tenders and we’ve got back pieces of MDF with writing on them. There’s a gap here I think for a new practice, new technology even, although people think that cures all ills, and it doesn’t.

NIKOLA BURDON: I think that’s where a lot of the differences are that museums are starting at a point where there isn’t any context and they’re having to work very hard and build on techniques to develop that context in a way that’s meaningful to the visitor whereas, you’re almost starting from – you have that context but, as you say, that limits you and you have to think very carefully if you want to actually bring in a different story or change that story or create a theme within it, that perhaps just doesn’t sit right within that room or create the right atmosphere for you to be able to think about that.

Just thinking about, for instance, like the new medieval gallery Museum of London while you walk into the Black Death experience and it’s all multimedia and you can change the atmosphere of a place immediately by having that closed off area.

DENISE FOSTER: I think that’s why the working kitchen at Wordsworth works so well because it creates a context or really enriches that particular context. I think we have a role to play in terms of provoking people, because there are so many layers actually in a historic house it can almost be a bit overwhelming for a visitor to perhaps focus on one particular theme or idea. So, I think we have a real challenge to try and look at how we start to unpick that. It can almost be -- the “wow” factor is great but it’s almost sensory overload, or it can be. So, it’s kind of unpicking that and perhaps highlighting specific artefacts
more clearly or looking at those ways of doing things and learning from how museums have done that.

LUCY WORSLEY: I also feel that there’s a gap here for artists to fill. In the maze at Hampton Court we wanted some interpretation and we really wanted the interpretation to have one generic learning outcome which is don’t run. So, we thought how are we going to get it across?

The answer was, in this case, a sculpture, which we commissioned from an artists collective. So, there’s all these crazy spooky noises going on all over the maze and in order to hear them you’ve got to tiptoe along really quietly and it has had an effect of modifying behaviour, which is what we wanted because it is 400 years old. That was the secondary learning outcome if they could learn one thing it was, this maze is 400 years old and it needs looking after. And it was just really interesting and something we hadn’t done before and I’d recommend it.

SHARON HEAL: Well, that’s good because that brings us around to this point on art.

SARAH STANIFORTH: It’s a very good question that one, it really is. This is where these houses becoming museums is really significant because, on the whole, the whole history of the houses is steeped in commissioning of art and craft. They were very often the powerhouses that supported a whole raft of architects and artists. You think of Turner at Papworth for example. Going to Chatsworth and seeing a Lucien Freud painting of a horse in amongst (inaudible) is just the most breathtaking experience. So, for me, the answer to that question is absolutely, yes. Actually historic royal palaces are different, the royal collection continues to commission new work. Do any of the new works from the royal collection find their way into historic royal palaces?

LUCY WORSLEY: Generally not, because members of the royal family commission them for their own use… There’s been quite a lot of commissions in art, at historic royal palaces recently. That’s public art I suppose. We’re a body acting as the patron.

SARAH STANIFORTH: It is part of the significance of these places that they have an association with artists and craftsmen and one does want to keep that alive but what is the committee of taste that is going to be the eye of the owner. There is nothing more hotly contested. We have occasionally done it particularly with commissioning record paintings, but selecting the artist who’s going to do that is almost as controversial as new paint colours.

JAVIER PES: As much as I love the work at Belsay Hall it’s always a bit of a worry there it’s a bit like that Punch cartoon where someone’s looking over all these redundant power stations and he says, “Oh, I remember when those were all art galleries” – they all went down the contemporary art route and then they’ve ended up with everyone being dressed up the same which is obviously really boring.

What we’re saying is there are different ways to dress up that are appropriate. And I suppose it’s the need for that research, the need for that consultation particularly with the local community to find out what’s the best bit and how are we going to change that for next season. So, they still feel current but they still look good. The trouble when you go for a kind of stereotypical uniform for these things that’s just the kiss of death, isn’t it? That’s when everything ends up feeling exactly the same.

DENISE FOSTER: Well, it’s not the same as having one idiosyncratic individual pursuing their absolute passion whatever that was.

LUCY WORSLEY: Yes, the danger of public art can be that you get caught up in the process of it and you’ve got a million school children involved and what you get at the end of it is not considered to be art by some people.

SARAH STANIFORTH: One of the ways you can get around it is by having an artist in residence, so that the commission of an artwork is part of the visitor experience while they’re there and some of those works stay to record that episode in the life of the property.

EMMA CARVER: We’ve been planning an interpretation, and it’s still very much in the planning stage, but one of the things that we’ve been looking at is the decorative arts and what potential is there to try and engage people with some of the objects in the house. Contemporary art might be one way of trying to do that by using similar materials. I think one thing that’s quite interesting about a lot of the objects, in some of the more stately houses, is how alien they are sitting there.

Trying to make that connection to visitors so that they generate an interest in those objects which, if you know a lot about them, may come very naturally to you, but actually if somebody walks into a room, a very grand thing, you can easily just sort of sweep around in a sort of glazed way, and having even one of those things jump out at you would be a success, in terms of, “Is there anything here I recognise?” As something that I would even know how it had been made or whatever.

So, I think that’s quite a challenge as well with some of the collections within historic houses. It’s not a given that they’re automatically interesting because you’ve got to generate the connection there. That’s just something we’ve been thinking about in connection with a house, which is very of that time.

RUTH TAYLOR: We’ve had some really lovely sculpture exhibitions in gardens. The sculpture has been generated by the artists working in the gardens and making connections between the plants and the sculpture they produce, and it makes you look at the original plant with different eyes by what they’ve taken out of it in the sculpture.

So, I think temporary exhibitions actually are a fantastic way of showing a place in different ways both the built property, or the natural thing.

SHARON HEAL: The point I was just going to bring in here ties back again to the relationship between historic house venues and museums. The Museums Association’s report, Collections for the Future, talked a lot about collections mobility and partnership and loans from nationals to regions and within regions and across borders. Do historic house venues work with museums in terms of loans from collections?

LUCY WORSLEY: We’ve got ten objects from the Museum of London arriving next week I think for the new medieval palace. Yeah, we definitely do quite regularly.

DENISE FOSTER: We’ve got a longstanding partnership with the National Portrait Gallery at Montacute in Somerset and Beningbrough in Yorkshire, which has proved immensely beneficial to both parties I think. Certainly we’ve learned a huge amount working with the NPG.

It’s been a really empowering experience for us. It’s fantastic to walk down the long gallery at Montacute House which is a great space with lots of Tudor dignitaries and other kind of hard hitting big stars, so to speak, from that period, and within that context it’s a really great use of that space.

SHARON HEAL: And does it happen enough, the partnership relationship loans?

SARAH STANIFORTH: It happens probably as much as it can because the houses that Denise mentioned are the ones that, for one reason or another, have lost their collections. There’s no doubt that the USP of the historic house museum is the collection in context, there are a few houses in this country that have completely lost their collections. Those are the ones where we would really focus on partnerships with local or national museums. So, I think the answer is we would absolutely look to it as an option in the houses where it’s appropriate.

LUCY WORSLEY: Plus it’s keeping the offer fresh. You have to have something new.

JAVIER PES: The most publicity you got recently was with the ravens, when they went on holiday in case they got flu. When people do borrow things it’s always great when you’ve got that wonderful tie in with the history of the site – it might be that you borrowed something from London Zoo, everyone would go bonkers because it obviously was a menagerie and there’s not much of a sense of it these days.

LUCY WORSLEY: Yeah, well it was our menagerie that went off to London Zoo.

EMMA CARVER: I can imagine that it will become more so in terms of the sort of things that we’ve been talking about and being a bit braver about how historic houses are actually presented and interpreted. The need to borrow and exchange objects to illustrate certain stories better, I can imagine that becoming more of a thing than perhaps it is at the moment. When there’s a big reliance on what’s actually there which is absolutely right. That would always have to be your main concern. If, as we hope, we are to get more interested in various angles of the story of these properties then we’re going to need investigate that somehow.

LUCY WORSLEY: Our main offer at Kensington this year is the portraits by Mario Testino of Diana Princess of Wales wearing her wonderful dresses, which are themselves displayed in the next room to that. An object in focus exhibition about a dress the Queen wore in Paris, in 1957, which has got all sorts of different takes on it by people who were there. It’s an aural history and I’ve just realised that we don’t own that dress it came from the Victoria and Albert Museum, we don’t own the Diana dresses, they came from a consortium of collectors and we don’t own the Testino portraits, they belong to him. So, actually we couldn’t have done it otherwise.

SHARON HEAL: I was thinking in particular of 2007, as we’d already discussed, I’m guessing that a lot of historic house venues wouldn’t have any objects still in their collections associated with slavery or not many…

DENISE FOSTER: Well, we need to do that body of research and we’re going to explore how we might do that but I would certainly say that, yes, I’m sure they do exist.

SARAH STANIFORTH: But I mean the statistics are absolutely astonishing about how dependent the economy was on the slave trade at the end of the 18th century and a huge percentage of the population was, knowingly or unknowingly, involved. I think you can say that all of those – anything that was made during that time has an implicit, if not an explicit, connection.

DENISE FOSTER: I think this is where we hope to be able to work with some regional museums in 2007. It’s difficult for us to say, at this point, what the outcomes will be but certainly I would hope to see some direct impacts on interpretation that the properties where we undertake to work in partnership with people to explore 2007 and commemorate it. I can’t say what those outcomes will be but I certainly think not working with regional museums would just be missing the trick.

RUTH TAYLOR: Certainly in the West Midlands where the Equiano exhibition is planned the link has already been made there with the other projects happening in the West Midlands.

JAVIER PES: Every industrial museum particularly in the north of England that’s got anything to do with cotton is a direct link. I remember I was talking to someone at York and it was like, “What are you doing?” “Nothing.” It was like, “Well, what about Rowntrees and with their cocoa chocolate.” So, hopefully it won’t all be everyone squabbling over a couple of slave shackles. The connections are there whether it’s mahogany or sugar or whatever, between the wealth that Britain acquired because of the plantation system.

DENISE FOSTER: So, there’s a vast, vast cobweb and network of links, aren’t there? We need to be inventive about it I think. Yes, I had a discussion somewhere else and I was astonished to discover the notion of perhaps they’re focusing on some industrial stuff actually in 2007, wasn’t going to focus on that particular issue. So, I did wave the flag and say, “You might want to think about …”. So, I think that so many of those industrial places don’t – I don’t think there’s enough of a focus on it and I think plenty of places are presented without that context being made.

It starts in education I was brought up in the North West and I did the Industrial Revolution three times in history and the link to the slave trade was barely discussed. So, I think there’s a bigger picture than what we’re doing. It’s also not in our consciousness because we haven’t learned about those links when we were younger and so, perhaps that’s what our role is in 2007 to try and wake the nation up to those things. You look sceptical, Lucy.

LUCY WORSLEY: I just think that’s why we’re doing it, isn’t it? If we had done it at school we probably wouldn’t need to do it.

SHARON HEAL: We’ve got about 15 minutes left. I think we’ve done fairly well off-script but managed to cover quite a lot of points. Are there any general points that you’d like to bring up in summation?

SARAH STANIFORTH: I did want to ask a question about garden interpretation which, obviously as far as the Museums Association is concerned, would be a very new area which is absolutely part and parcel of the story for us in the same way that the collections are. Is that in or out of scope for what you want to write about?

SHARON HEAL: I think that’s in scope. A lot of local authority museums are still in grounds. They might be run by a different department of the council but they’re still seen by the visitor in context as a whole.

JAVIER PES: I mean the best archaeology museum I visited recently was an archaeology park and museum. The two were connected so much so that you could be looking at your display about gardening and through the window there was a garden. What’s so terrible is when they turn their back on each other, you know, the garden is looking one way and the people in the museum in the historic house are looking the other.

RUTH TAYLOR: What is often very difficult is the understanding, particularly with landscape gardens and parks, what has been landscaped and how it has been landscaped. We had an HLF-funded project where we’ve been showing that landscaping because we’ve been putting that landscape back. So, the drawings show the before and after and what it will be in 100 years’ time, and it’s to understand why it was landscaped, what it was landscaped for. It’s very difficult to understand if you haven’t got that particular historical understanding. So, it is a tricky interpretation, again it’s telling that story and it’s telling its story so that people can get a grasp on.

LUCY WORSLEY: Landscape gardens are a great story about power and oppression and victimisation and being nasty to people as well as being useful things, aren’t they?

SARAH STANIFORTH: As far as the modern audience is concerned there is a very nicely layered story there because gardens hit a lot of interest. From the people who do gardening themselves who are just very interested in what plants are flowering at a particular time, through the plants men, who are more interested in horticulture, to those who do the garden design and the design and art of gardens, then the garden historians and all of the history of the structure, the made structures within the garden. So, there’s a huge amount of potential and, as Denise said, our evidence is that the gardens are the prime driver for repeat visits because it also changes.

DENISE FOSTER: But I also think that the way that people live is changing, and so many more people had access to gardens 25 years ago in their own domestic spaces. And I know that the population is changing in terms of people not having the access to their own domestic green space that they might have had previously. So, I think it is one of those things where people don’t feel intellectually overpowered by a garden, they can turn up and experience it and in fact it’s an authentic experience in the way that you were describing it earlier.

LUCY WORSLEY: It’s good for your mental health to look at plants, isn’t it? But then there’s conflicts as well in the gardens too, aren’t there? People who just like trees and can’t understand why you want to cut down some old trees in order to replant an avenue, that sort of debate can be very fraught.

EMMA CARVER: We are just embarking on a piece of research about gardens, trying to draw together how people view our gardens, or don’t, and that will hopefully be out in about six month’s time. We hope to make most of that public, so that should be quite an interesting piece of work.

DENISE FOSTER: One of the things that we’ve done during the last year-and-a-half has been a gardens interpretation project, which has worked with a variety of people from across the organisation and, I mean, it was really all people so, gardeners, wardens, volunteers, learning officers, curators, garden historians; anybody with a relationship with gardens, in order to rethink about how to address garden interpretation, because visitors are very aware that they need better access to our gardens.

And Sarah is holding up our garden interpretation CD – it will continue to be added to because we recognise that it is a journey that we’re starting and we need to move through. Quite interestingly, my colleague, Ann, had a visit from somebody who was talking about interpretation planning at the Eden Centre which is, you could argue, a kind of garden.

The thing that they’ve discovered through doing their own research with the visitors and what visitors want from plants and from that sort of space, the things that are going to underpin their interpretation are things like sense, light and beauty. And we don’t talk about beauty very much but people are awestruck by beauty in all its many forms.

When I was doing some volunteering work working with a group of young chaps on probation they were helping doing some conservation work. These four guys that you would not expect to be dumbstruck by beauty and yet they were, and they had some very positive things to say about the space, about the place, about the landscape.

They were not our normal visitor audience, but the beauty thing definitely got them going. Those are things that people at Eden talked about that are underpinning what they do, which we’ve been talking about today, which is human connections, but also about respect for human efforts and skills, participation and surprise, amazement and provoking curiosity. So, it’s very interesting that the things Eden are talking about, in terms of what they want to do with their interpretation and how they want to move forward, are the same sorts of things that we’re talking about in a slightly different context.

NIKOLA BURDON: Gardens can also help in that they’re such fantastic emotive places, you know, multi-sensory places but they can also help in the scene setting as well. They could create your atmosphere for you before you actually enter the house or they can be the opposite way around and be an extension of having visited the house and then you come out into the gardens and their extension to that is atmosphere and scene setting and emotive experience.

LUCY WORSLEY: There’s a downside to gardens, they cost a lot to run I suppose.

SHARON HEAL: Are there problems moving the visitors who’ve come for the garden into the house?

SARAH STANIFORTH: That actually is a very good way of helping the visitor flow. If you’ve got more than one attraction in the visit it means that you can control numbers better. The capacity of the houses is usually less than that of the gardens. It’s about constraints, the physical constraints of houses. The alternative tours around gardens, or it could be around other buildings, stately yards etc, on the estate, is actually a positive. It depends on capacities but we wouldn’t necessarily want to use the garden as a hook for the houses.

EMMA CARVER: I think one thing that would be very interesting to know is whether you’ve basically got a different group of people going to the garden, as opposed to the house, which I’m sure that you have definitely – I mean, for every ten times you might go to the garden you might go to the house.

LUCY WORSLEY: At Hampton Court until last year you didn’t have to pay to get into the gardens and we just decided we couldn’t afford to sustain this any more, because the people who were buying tickets to the palace were subsidising this wonderful public amenity and, very reluctantly, we introduced gardens charging.

That was good in a way because it meant that we really had to go out and explain to all these people who were using the garden that in fact we are not supported by the government, we are not supported by the Queen, we are supported by people like them who want to support our charity. So, there’s a sort of lining on the cloud there because it was really controversial.

SHARON HEAL: And what did that show in terms of use?

LUCY WORSLEY: It showed that loads of people who were visiting the gardens, particularly repeatedly local people. We’ve managed to sign quite a lot of them up as members because there’s this journey from, “We hate you, you’re charging us to go into our favourite place” to “Oh, you don’t get any money? Well, maybe I’ll come and support you as a volunteer and work in the gardens anyway”. So, that’s a positive outcome.

SARAH STANIFORTH: I think we’d be pretty reluctant for people to have to pay to go into the parkland. It’s sort of almost at the, “Ha Ha”. It’s where you might draw the line. Actually what you said about the cost of maintaining gardens is a very good reason for that because they are very labour intensive particularly if you garden historically with the sort of bedding that might have been used.

JAVIER PES: It’s always a great shame that you can’t use it as your loss leader and move your tearoom and your shop to make the most of it…

SHARON HEAL: We’re going to have to wind up now. We haven’t got through every single question but if you want to go around the table and just chip in on any last thoughts, either questions that we’ve missed or just last thoughts on the future for interpretation in historic house venues, briefly.

RUTH TAYLOR: We talked a bit about sustainability and this whole sustainability story – you could actually set up as a sustainable property and you could see it happening there in the property. So, there are lots of other stories in interpretation that are completely unexplored at the moment and that is one.

JAVIER PES: I’m delighted we haven’t talked about labels. A room full of museum people and it’s basically, very rapidly talk about labels. I hope the idea of interpretation, whether it’s through sound or moving people through spaces or guiding them around, is much richer I think.

DENISE FOSTER: Yeah, I think the future for interpretation in historic houses is through people and the experiential and awaking responses in people and it’s quite difficult to get a proper emotional response from a label. I think that whole spirit of places is actually really important, the “wow factor”.

NIKOLA BURDON: Actually one of the things we haven’t talked about is websites and how people view websites in terms of importance as a tool of interpretation, and whether they see it as an extension to their property or actually that they don’t hold that much importance at all.

RUTH TAYLOR: It’s got potential in terms of that layer if you’ve gone somewhere and you’ve found out about something and you then want to develop it more. It’s got the potential to put on some of the more detailed information. I’m not saying that we’re doing that at the moment.

DENISE FOSTER: I think it’s got the potential to extend people’s learning, but I think the comment that Lucy made about technology not being a panacea for all ills is actually a really important one. I think websites have got a real part to play in terms of perhaps doing a better job of signposting people to other ways of researching information, or finding out information for themselves, and perhaps fostering what is provided at the property. But I don’t think a website can replace the real thing.

LUCY WORSLEY: People have the opportunity to actually buy into parts of the experience, which is good because it may reduce our footfall which is causing conservation chaos.

NIKOLA BURDON: And there’s a whole untapped millions of visitors out there for you, which could be visiting your website, who can’t actually access your property. Perhaps if access, in the real sense, is going to get more and more difficult, perhaps this is a route you could be thinking about in terms of actual experience.

SARAH STANIFORTH: We put in a large bid to the Millennium Fund, which was going to be for that and it was a big millennium project, which was called “A thousand threads”. It was to reinterpret a number of properties through electronic media that would be accessible via the web. Actually that got turned down, probably because it was colossally ambitious.

We haven’t built on that but one of the motivations for doing that was precisely what you said; was the recognition that people may not travel as much in the future and it was another way of providing access. So, I think there is quite a lot to play with there and the government is certainly pushing the IT agenda.

NIKOLA BURDON: I think that sort of change of thinking that it’s actually an extension to the property as opposed to an add-on, and a nice way to give essential information. I think that’s also where some museums have perhaps developed further in terms of seeing their website very much as a part of the museum as their collections.

JAVIER PES: The best museum, something like the Tate, they talk about it as their “fifth gallery”. So, it’s partly marketing and partly where to find a car park. I’m sure that will just increase the international attractiveness for a lot of them because there’s so many.

DENISE FOSTER: You’ve got to pick the right technology and not pick the one that becomes defunct in ten years’ time and then you have to go through the whole process again which is massively expensive. So, for a charity, it’s a real ongoing headache.

EMMA CARVER: Yeah, but you do have to think about what it is that you’re trying to achieve. I think that’s all it is. Digitising collections starting at A and trying to get to Z is a complete waste of time. Plucking out 100 top objects, which everybody makes a beeline to is a great idea.

SHARON HEAL: We’re really going to have to wrap up — thank you everybody for turning up, taking part.

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