A new face: Beningbrough Hall, York - Museums Association

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A new face: Beningbrough Hall, York

The National Portrait Gallery and the National Trust have joined forces to create what they claim is an innovative and ambitious redisplay for a historic house. Javier Pes judges its success
'Savour the taste, remember the place,' goes the slogan on the National Trust's napkins. Beningbrough Hall, the place in question, is an early 18th-century red brick country house set in the Yorkshire countryside with a fine walled garden attached. It was built by John Bourchier, a young landed gentleman who took a fancy to the baroque during his grand tour of Italy.

The exterior might not be Castle Howard, but a lofty stone-vaulted entrance hall is wonderfully over the top. It is a bit impractical in dampest Yorkshire - the river Ouse is nearby - but is impressive nonetheless. It has, of all things, a papal bust over the fireplace. Where better to put a souvenir from Rome? And where better than Beningbrough for 18th-century portraits that would otherwise live in the National Portrait Gallery's (NPG) roller racking?

The partnership between the National Trust and the NPG stretches back to 1979, and the house is one of the gallery's three country retreats, the other two being Montacute House in Somerset and Bodelwyddan Castle in north Wales. After its £800,000 redisplay and refurbishment, Beningbrough boasts more portraits than before, which are hung on walls painted in 'heritage neutral' hues. There is also a clutch of hands-on displays and lucid new interpretation. The house-proud volunteer guides complete the welcome.

But first visitors can buy tea and cake in the trust's cafe: when you've polished your green halo by cycling eight miles from York, as the trust is keen that you do, you need feeding and watering. Refreshed, I was ready to take in the house and the new hang, which opened in June.

The trust is keeping the top floor galleries open year-round while the rest of the house hibernates during the winter. Unlike many such houses, visitors can go in through the front door, having first bought a ticket in the stable block. So they are able to experience the full effect of the entrance hall. It is a pity visitors are not allowed to climb the wide, cantilevered staircase, a feature that clinched the trust's decision to save the house from demolition in the late 1950s.

Most of the paintings can be seen, which is not always true in historic houses. There is much less roping off than is the norm, but even so visitors cannot get within ten feet of a portrait of the Earl of Sandwich (of convenience-food fame). He was painted as a young man on his grand tour, dressed in silks and a turban, having ventured beyond Italy to Turkey. You have to rely on the handheld information board to find that it is Constantinople in the background, not the Coliseum. The boards are particularly well-designed and in rooms that contain lots of paintings, they are doubled-up and hinged in the middle like a book's spine.

Less robust was one of the two touchscreen computers in a side room on the second floor. They promised lots more information, but as one was obstinately frozen and the other in use, I only later discovered how patchy that information could be. Why were the seven bishops, who appear in a strange little painting, sent to the Tower in 1688? The NPG site does not say. (They had upset James II, apparently.) And inconveniently, the trust's page about the house doesn't seem to feature a link to the NPG database.

Another link seemed to be playing up, which was a bigger personal disappointment. The cleverest new display allows you to sit for your own digital portrait and then email home the 'canvas'. The display is found in the suite of new hands-on spaces on the top floor: the former servants' quarters. A new lift supplements the back stairs.

The computer programme manages to flatter just as a portrait painter with their eye on the next commission might. But my portrait in the style of Joshua Reynolds failed to appear.

Simpler hands-on displays allow you to mould a replacement nose in putty for a marble bust that is missing its own one. (One visitor had added a joke moustache.) Younger visitors can try on a frock coat or dress. For convenience sake, the clothes can be hooked over the shoulders like a bib. Ingenious, but rather uncomfortable, and I wondered how educational. The nannyish tone of the instructions - 'Dress up. Do a jigsaw. Pretend to be a different person.' - might grate with older visitors.

After Bourchier, subsequent owners of Beningbrough seem to have been an unremarkable lot, deserving their short mentions. The last, Lady Chesterfield, inherited a shipping fortune and spent it racing horses and breeding Labradors. She only reluctantly moved out during the second world war, when the house became home to air crews of Bomber Command.

There are photographs of a few of those unbelievably brave men displayed in the stable block. Only one in four survived unscathed from night raids over Germany and returned to their freezing billet. They deserve better. Airfix-style model planes dangling above overspill from the shop complete the 'tribute'.

On their own, the house and the historic portraits might be more B than A-list. Together they make something that is, as the Michelin Guide would say, well worth the detour.

Javier Pes is the editor of Museum Practice

Project data
Cost: £805,000 Main funders: Heritage Lottery Fund (£414,000), National Trust (£150,000), National Portrait Gallery (£134,000), Department for Culture, Media and Sport (£100,000) Designer: Casson Mann Software design: 2-Up Display materials: Easy Tiger Creative Graphics: BAF Graphics Facsimile sculpture: Conservation Centre, National Museums Liverpool Art handling: Fine Art Services

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