The National Trust has defended its commitment to research and specialist expertise as it proposes to restructure its curatorial workforce and reduce opening hours at some properties.
The organisation is proposing to cut 1,200 jobs in response to the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which it says will lead to income losses of up to £200m this year. The planned redundancies fall relatively lightly on curation roles, but do involve significant losses in this area.
In an internal document seen by Museums Journal, the trust proposes reducing the numbers of full-time equivalent curators in its curation and experience directorate from 14 to 10.
A number of curator roles such as national specialists in furniture, textiles, and libraries would go. Several more wide-ranging roles – such as senior national curators of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, a senior national curator of repurposing historic houses, and a national curator of inclusive histories – would be created.
The trust says it will recruit the new roles from the existing workforce.
Voices in the media and the heritage sector have expressed fears that the plans will lead to the loss of important specialist knowledge. The Historic Libraries Forum has protested that “no single curator – however experienced – can have expert levels of knowledge about art history, furniture, textiles and books alike”.
John Orna-Ornstein, the National Trust’s director of culture and engagement, told Museums Journal the plans were a strategic response to the financial difficulties faced by the trust, saying “what we don’t want to do is salami slice”.
He described the idea that the trust was turning its back on expertise as “a distortion”, adding: “This is a situation where we need to reduce numbers and we want to do that in as strategic a way as possible”. (In a blog published on the National Trust website, he has written that articles in the Times and other media about the trust's plans have been "misleading".)
He said that having to reduce staff numbers meant “we’ve had to think a little bit more broadly about specialism”, adding “it couldn’t be further from the truth to suggest that we want to get rid of all our specialists or that we don’t value specialism”.
He added: “All of these people will be drawn from our existing specialists. It’s just that we have to have slightly fewer of them”.
In reference to the broader focus of the new roles, he said: “What we want is curators and specialists who have a passion for people and communicating history. We want specialists who know about collections and about places. And we want specialists who can make connections to much broader histories and paint a big picture, as well as focusing on a detail”.
He said: “We’ve put a lot of effort recently into becoming an Independent Research Organisation and we want to build on that in terms of our research, and our understanding of our collections and places.”
He added that the trust would step up its partnerships with external experts in museums and universities.
Orna-Ornstein said that alongside national curators and specialists, the trust’s plans would involve embedding curators at its houses with the most significant collections and histories. It would also employ curators who focused on specific geographic regions, and a cohort of assistant curators who would be supported to develop careers in the trust.
He confirmed that the overall number of curators would be reduced. The trust’s director Hilary McGrady has said that the total number of roles with curator in the job title would change from 111 to 80 under the plans.
Orna-Ornstein, a former curator at the British Museum, added that the trust’s job reductions in conservation and care would be “significantly less than in some other areas”.
The proposed changes are related to a leaked internal National Trust document from May called “Towards a 10-year vision for places and experiences”.
The document has prompted heated debate by proposing to “dial down” the trust’s positioning as a major national cultural institution and prioritise its role as a gateway to the outdoors and provider of public space. It says that a “big shift” is needed in the trust’s approach to managing its country houses and that many “will be repurposed as public space in service of local audiences”.
It says to implement this, “the first elements to focus on will be local outdoors, destination estates and creating a much more flexible and low-cost approach to smaller mansions”.
Orna-Ornstein said the document, which he commissioned, was not a strategy or draft strategy. He said it was “deliberately provocative and challenging, and that’s what I wanted it to be”.
He said: “It was meant to stimulate our thinking, and it has done, and there are elements that we are carrying forward into our plans”.
Orna-Ornstein supported the document’s key proposal to “differentiate” the way the trust’s properties are run. He said that under current plans, properties with the most significant collections, histories and architecture – called “treasure houses” in the document – would become “great cultural centres” with investment in cultural programming, collections care and research. This would include properties such as Dorset’s Kingston Lacy and Petworth House and Park in West Sussex.
Other properties would be “open on a booked basis, probably for fewer days a week” and offer a more immersive visitor experience as well as tours, talks and performances. Orna-Ornstein said this model was already used for properties like the Beatles Childhood Homes in Liverpool.
He said some other properties would focus primarily on local audiences, working with partners such as charities, Parkrun and Sport England.
The document says that the offer at some properties will include commercial operations, “where the potential for broad public benefit is limited”.
Orna-Ornstein said: “The outdoors isn’t any more accessible to some people than collections and culture and art and I think there is a real opportunity for the trust to be a gateway to all of those things”.
He rejected the idea that the trust was dumbing down, but said “there are many, many people who most of all just want to enjoy a place and I’m not embarrassed about that at all. I don’t think every visit is about deep learning. I think what we want to do is give people what they want and on the whole, we’re doing that”.
Regarding the document’s reference to moving collections and taking them off display, he said: “We are not getting rid of all of our collections – it’s just not going to happen. What we do want to do is to be able to move collections around and use them really effectively”.
Orna-Ornstein said there was no need for there to be a division between people championing expert knowledge and those prioritising access and experiences, saying: “I just don’t see that dichotomy, it feels to me really unhelpful. It’s not the National Trust that I want us to be”.
In 2018, the trust announced that it had doubled its number of curators from 36 to about 65 over the previous two years.