Kids' stuff - Museums Association

Kids’ stuff

Rebecca Mileham says the National Trust needs to build on its winning approach to interpretation for children at Chastleton House to make the property a real success
Rebecca Mileham
Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

'When can we go back to Chastleton House?' my four-and-a-half year old has repeated the question almost daily since our recent visit. He enjoyed exploring this National Trust property in Oxfordshire as if he'd been visiting country piles all his life. In contrast, I blundered inexpertly around the house, searching in vain for the interpretive strand that would help me make sense of it - or at least keep me out of trouble with the staff.

Chastleton should give the warmest of National Trust welcomes. You won't find any rope barriers in the house, and there aren't any signs ordering you not to touch. Visitors will be able to attend a garden party in July to celebrate Chastleton's 400th anniversary, and this year its historic clothing collection is coming out for the first time and the stables are being returned to their original use, with two horses belonging to the current custodian taking up residence.

Owned by the same extended family for four centuries, and changed very little over the ages, the house is presented as a time capsule; its elegant but well-worn rooms complete with soot-blackened ceiling in the kitchen and dodgy plaster in the attic.

But even though it's a family house, Chastleton is still a stately home. Most modern households wouldn't know what to do with a Flemish tapestry or an engraved fire-screen. When the function and treatment of home furnishings has changed so much, it's asking a lot of visitors to infer what you should and shouldn't do in an unfamiliar environment such as Chastleton - particularly when there's no handy interpretation to give you clues.

I lurched from one proscribed activity to another during our visit, drawing fire from the army of trust volunteers at every step. I touched a piece of furniture (not permitted) while standing on ancient carpet (absolutely fine). I knew I couldn't sit on any of the chairs because someone had put spiky teasels on them.

But I took a photograph where I shouldn't have, invoking a snappy, 'Have you been told you may photograph things?' I ended up feeling like an uncomfortable seven-year-old visiting posh relatives on Sunday afternoon - probably not the feeling the trust is hoping to inspire in new visitors to its properties.

My son was oblivious to my shame-faced lack of social skills. He strode ahead with the Family Explorer Pack he'd been given as we arrived. Along with a magnifying glass, binoculars and tape measure, the backpack also contained a useful spotter's guide: a simple pamphlet that led us through the rooms with things to look out for and think about.

It also told a few stories about the house, sometimes nicely embellished by the volunteers (whom I only once heard talking cheerfully about shutting all children upstairs 'so no one would know who had murdered whom'). With a mission to fulfil, my son had no interest in running around inappropriately or touching anything off-limits.

With no backpack to keep me entertained, I invented a mission of my own: to see what story Chastleton is trying to tell today's audience. The house certainly has its share of tales. The Jones family built the house on land bought from Robert Catesby, one of the would-be bombers in the Gunpowder Plot, in the early 17th century.

During the civil war 50 years later, the lady of the house saved her husband from Commonwealth troops by drugging them with laudanum while he hid in the house's secret hidey-hole. And on one of the house's immaculate lawns, Walter Whitmore-Jones laid down the rules of croquet and then won the first croquet tournament in 1868.

Other than these historical footnotes, Chastleton has had an uneventful life. When the National Trust took over the property in 1991, it decided to keep it as found rather than restoring it, although it did carry out extensive repairs to stop further deterioration before it opened to the public in 1996.

This approach to conservation, which has also been adopted at Tyntesfield in Somerset, does not mean that visitors are seeing how people lived in the 17th century: the house is covered in the fingerprints of more recent residents - radiators installed ten years ago and 1960s wallpaper in the library.

The slipper bath in the attic and the shuttlecocks found in the lovely 'long gallery', where family members could exercise on wet days, hint at a more complicated story than is presented. For me, these everyday objects speak more eloquently than the unchanging fabric of the house, muddling the historic message.

Chastleton perhaps offers a particular challenge to the National Trust's aim to preserve historic properties 'for ever, for everyone', as its slogan goes. To limit the strain on its frail fabric, Chastleton restricts its visitor numbers. But at the same time it hopes to fulfil the trust's strategy of heightening visitor awareness and sharing the treasures of its properties. Is it succeeding?

For families with younger children, Chastleton seems to be winning. My son's positive reaction to the Family Explorer Pack - and the favourable comments by other families with under-tens - shows that this hands-on approach is working. The backpacks lead younger visitors on a journey through the house, give them things they can do and see, and use stories to engage them in Chastleton's history and significance.

But Chastleton's interpretation for other visitors seems less successful. Responsibility for most of the storytelling lies with the volunteers, in their dual role as guides and guards. They were stationed in individual rooms on our visit, and struggled to communicate an overall message as well as telling engaging anecdotes.

For visitors to whom face-to-face interpretation doesn't appeal, the only other option is the official guidebook. This offers a tour, but at too great a level of detail to allow readers easily to find either an overarching story, or the juicier moments in the house's history.

Chastleton could build its success by introducing interpretation devices aimed at general audiences - and they needn't be costly. Teenage and adult visitors might enjoy a more sophisticated version of the children's backpack.
An adult-oriented pamphlet would be an obvious low-tech idea, and a take-along photo album with interesting 'can you see?' and 'did you know?' captions for each room might appeal to visitors of all ages.

Such techniques could provide a convincing message for the house, and a way of acknowledging some of the property's eccentricities - as well as offering visitors clues as to how they're supposed to behave. By empowering other groups of visitors as they've done their younger audience, Chastleton could blaze a trail for the National Trust.

Rebecca Mileham is a museum text consultant and trainer

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