National Trust sees membership rise following pandemic - Museums Association

National Trust sees membership rise following pandemic

Conservation body says climate crisis and inclusivity are its top priorities
National Trust
Visitors exploring the extensive parkland at Lyme Park, Cheshire
Visitors exploring the extensive parkland at Lyme Park, Cheshire National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

The National Trust has said 2021/22 was "a year of recovery", with membership and visitors both rising following Covid lockdowns.

In its 2021/2022 annual report, the trust reveals it welcomed about 20 million visitors to its paying venues, up from 13 million the previous year.

This remains lower than pre-Covid figures, reflecting lingering caution about sharing public spaces, the charity says.

Membership also rose to 5.7 million after falling to 5.4 million the previous year and this, along with the lower VAT rate, saw membership income rise £12.5m year-on-year.

Commercial activities generated a total of £132.2m in income across the year, with retail sales up by £19.3m. However, income for the year was at less than two thirds of pre-pandemic levels.

The report shows that project expenditure in 2021-22 was more than £187.5m compared to £108.4m the previous year, and total expenditure increased by £104.8m year-on-year.

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As it continues to recover from the financial impact of the pandemic, the National Trust says its two priorities are “climate action and nature loss and ensuring that everyone is welcome”.

Although its reserves grew from £410.6m in 2020-21 to £413.7m, the annual report warns that the cost-of-living crisis is a concern on its finances as well as those of its audience.

“As we enter a period of major pressure on people’s finances, we are very conscious we need to do everything possible to provide value for money and new opportunities for people to enjoy free-to-access places in our care,” says Hilary McGrady, the director general of the National Trust.

The climate crisis also poses a major risk to its work, with extreme weather affecting property as well as parklands, gardens and woods.

“The nature and climate crises are now the most significant threats to our work,” says Harry Bowell, the trust’s director of land and nature. “We look after over 249,000 hectares of land and we are investing in a wide range of projects to improve our resilience to the effects of climate change by bolstering nature, including restoring peatlands, planting and establishing trees and creating new areas of wetland.

“But it is not just the land that climate change impacts. From historic houses ever more at risk of damage from torrential rainfall and heat spikes, to protecting collections from increasingly damp and humid conditions, we have to consider the impact of climate change on everything we look after. It makes the support we receive all the more vital.”

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The rise in members comes after the trust has faced prolonged criticism from some parts of media for its work addressing its colonial history and properties’ links to transatlantic slavery.

Grassroot groups such as Restore Trust have also been campaigning for changes to the way the National Trust is managed, citing concerns about a move away from specialist curators and prioritising a role as “custodian” of historic properties.

Restore Trust's director, Zewditu Gebreyohanes, was last week appointed as a trustee of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London by then-prime minister Boris Johnson. The group is also fielding several candidates for election to the National Trust Council at this year's AGM in November.

Responding to some of the criticism it has faced, a spokesperson for the National Trust said: "The National Trust is a national institution; interest in our work is understandable and it is welcome. We work well with a range of supporter groups and critics and have done so for decades.

"However, these groups have always been voluntary without any influence from the private sector. Until now, there has been no instance of paid-for campaigns to influence the charity's decisions or get individuals onto our governing bodies. We have a long, proud tradition of openness and healthy democratic processes underpinning our governance, and this will continue."

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