National Trust's guiding spirit - Museums Association

National Trust’s guiding spirit

Central to all our thinking is the concept of the “spirit of the place”
Helen Ghosh
The debate about which properties the National Trust should acquire is a lively one within the organisation. Art deco cinemas? More examples of 20th-century modernism? Threatened city pubs? Local corner shops? A brutalist housing estate?

At the heart of this debate is not only the question of the intrinsic importance of these buildings, but the signal that acquisition would send to the public, that “heritage” is not just something for an elite; difficult to understand, and, indeed, get to. It’s on their doorstep, part of their life.

That’s why we’ve enabled people to visit places such as the Big Brother house, which we arranged tours of a couple of years ago, much to the consternation of some of our more traditional supporters who thought that we had bought it. We also opened one of the flats in Erno Goldfinger’s 1967 Balfron Tower in east London, which we refurnished in its 1968 style for a few weeks in 2014.

The kinds of places we acquire, own or show, send out a set of messages about “what is history?” and “why does it matter to me?” How we present and explain our places can say as much or more.

Central to all our thinking about how to present and tell the story of a place – house, garden, estate, landscape – is the concept of the “spirit of the place”. Why have we got it, how did people live in it and how do people connect with it now?

At Polesden Lacey in Surrey, home of the Edwardian socialite Margaret Greville, the spirit of the place is gleam and gloss, and parties. So that is how we keep the house, and it determines how we programme events and tell visitors its story.

I hope visitors to Trust properties in recent years have noticed a distinct relaxation in the atmosphere – ropes have disappeared, fires are lit, children are positively welcomed, there are comfortable chairs to sit down in. All part of what my predecessor Fiona Reynolds called an “open-armed” approach to our visitors, and a programme
to breathe new life into our places. We have also experimented with a more layered way of presenting them, not just thrusting an academic guidebook with footnotes into visitors’ hands.

And we don’t shy away from telling stories that are difficult. One of the trickier buildings we have in terms of its stories and the antagonism of the local community is Penrhyn Castle, in north Wales, a house built by the Douglas-Pennant family on the proceeds, first of their slave plantations in Jamaica, and later the income from their vast slate mine in nearby Bethesda. There are still many people in the local community who refuse to darken the doors of the castle, so vivid are the memories even now of the hardship and cruelty of the three-year strike at the mine that started in 1900, after decades of friction between the workers, their managers and Lord Penrhyn.

Until recently, we shied away from telling the story straight, perhaps out of some sense of loyalty to the family who created the place, perhaps so as not to reopen old wounds. As visitor numbers and enjoyment slumped, income and therefore the state of the property worsened, it was clear something needed to be done.

The first aspect of the transformation of the property has been to find more imaginative ways of engaging visitors in the collection and architecture of the place. Last summer, artists were invited to bring parts of the house to life, including projected images of decorative carved heads that echoed recorded voices of visitors.

A book on the history of slate was launched at the castle recently: the event was hosted by a well-known Welsh actor, and it led some local people to cross the threshold of the castle for the first time.

By creatively telling the story of our places, their families and local communities, more clearly and honestly, we can, I hope, answer the question “why does it matter to me?”

Helen Ghosh is the director general of the National Trust

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