Three of a kind

Simon Stephens, 28.11.2013
A trio of historic properties working hard to engage audiences
I’ve visited three historic properties in the past week in very different areas of the country: Kenwood House in London; the Bowes Museum in County Durham; and Compton Verney in Warwickshire.

They may be located far apart but all three have quite a lot in common. For a start, all of them have gone through periods of uncertainty.

Kenwood HouseKenwood House, which English Heritage reopens today following a £5.95m restoration, was remodelled by architect Robert Adam in the 18th century.

Its fate became unclear in 1922 when Lord Mansfield sold the contents of the house.

But its future was secured three years later by brewer Edward Guinness, the first Lord of Iveagh, who bought the house and 74 acres surrounding it. He later left Kenwood House to the nation, with the stipulation that it should be open to the public and free to enter.

The Bowes Museum was purpose-built in the 19th-century by local businessman John Bowes and his wife Joséphine. By the time its current director, Adrian Jenkins, arrived in 2001 it was in a sorry state, and had recently been threatened with closure. But Jenkins and his £12m capital programme have turned the museum around.

Compton Verney changed hands a number of times in the 20th century before eventually falling derelict. But in 1993 it was rescued by the Compton Verney House Trust, which bought the house and grounds with a grant from a foundation created by Peter Moores, the art collector, philanthropist and former Littlewoods chairman.

The three historic properties also all have very particular collections.

The Iveagh Bequest at Kenwood House included Old Master and British paintings, including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner and Gainsborough.

The Bowes Museum has an eclectic mix of pictures, textiles, ceramics, metalwork, sculpture and items of historical interest that were collected by John and Joséphine.

And Compton Verney’s diverse collections range from Chinese bronzes and pottery collected by Moores through to the UK’s largest collection of folk art.

As well as remarkable collections and interesting histories, what unites the three properties today is a strong focus on audiences.

Kenwood House received about 130,000 visitors a year prior to its closure for redevelopment in March 2012, and felt a little bit like a well-kept north London secret.

English Heritage is trying to change this by working harder to engage local communities; creating a more family friendly feel, including activities for under-fives; and developing its digital offer, such as the new Kenwood Tour app.

At the Bowes Museum, Jenkins has developed a strong exhibition programme to attract people in what is a sparsely populated area – Barnard Castle itself only has about 5,000 residents but the museum attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year.

Past shows have ranged from contemporary art, including Damien Hirst prints, to historical shows such as Fantin-Latour and the Impressionists.

Steven Parissien, the director of Compton Verney, has developed a strategy to increase visitor numbers by researching what the gallery’s audiences want and offering them attractive exhibitions and facilities to get them through the door.

Compton Verney will celebrate its tenth anniversary next year with two big exhibitions – one on sculptors Henry Moore and Auguste Rodin, and the other on folk art that is being organised by the Tate.

Historic properties have a very particular place in the UK museum sector and these three venues are all interesting examples of what they can offer.


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01.12.2013, 19:53
Continuing the theme, Joshua Hempstead House in Conneticut have been undertaking fascinating research into how they can broaden their audience base. They've blogged their work in a remarkably open and honest way. Well worth a look if you're researching audiences and Historic Houses.