National Trust ‘stuff’ debate: ‘Re-presenting the Country House’ – Ben Cowell, Director, NT East of England

Since the earliest days of the country house, one of their primary roles has been display; conveying meaning through designs, devices and decoration. Through the generations this role remained, though each age had their own influence, mostly evolutionary or occasionally a more dramatic change.  The clearest messages were to be found in the houses which had remained in the family with their collections but as this became a rarer combination in private hands, the National Trust became one of the most important custodians of this legacy.

Library, Ickworth, Suffolk (Image: ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel)
Library, Ickworth, Suffolk (Image: ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel)

However, in an interview with Dame Helen Ghosh, the Director General of the National Trust, surprised many by saying:

People were also put off because there is “so much stuff” in some of the stately homes. The Trust was now looking at featuring only a handful of interesting artworks in some homes to see if it increased their appeal. Dame Helen said: “We just make people work fantastically hard, and we can make them work much less hard.” [Daily Telegraph – 23/03/15]

Cue much consternation – in his article ‘What’s wrong with the National Trust?‘, eminent art historian Bendor Grosvenor asked ‘Has the National Trust lost interest in art?‘. Mr Grosvenor then visited Ickworth and his follow-up article contained photos of the library, formerly full of contextually appropriate furniture, which now had bean bags.  I shared this via Twitter, prompting a spirited debate which raised the obvious curatorial and aesthetic concerns – who were these visitors who struggled, what about those who visit specifically to see the glorious contents? I confess to being firmly in the latter camp and have stated as much.

In the spirit of an honest debate about this important topic and to put the National Trust’s position, I offered Dr Cowell a guest blog post which he has taken up and is below.

After reading it, I understand why the National Trust feels it has a role to play in developing the interpretation of the country house.  Almost inevitably, these activities are going to be criticised. This is especially true where they conflict with the strongly held views of why most of the National Trust’s members visit these houses, namely, to see their unparalleled collections, married to the interiors for which they were intended.

The controversy is perhaps less about the experimentation and more about the less than transparent way that it has taken place.  One always fears that any action is the thin end of a wedge which permanently compromises what many would accept is the best way of displaying this historic collections. This is unfortunately compounded by Dame Helen’s frustratingly disrespectful description of the matchless art and furniture as mere ‘stuff‘, implying a rather disposable attitude.

Handled differently, I suspect that there would be much less outcry and reputational damage if they were less opaque and perhaps:

  • Shared, before changes were made, the proposed alterations and the research which led to them
  • Gave a clear indication of whether these changes were permanent or temporary (and, if the latter, for how long)
  • Indicated where the contents had been moved to if within the same building or that it was not available

I would also suggest that the National Trust facilitated a more formal feedback mechanism so that experts – both internal and external – can debate the merits of the changes along with contributions from their 4m members who care so deeply about the houses.  This would enable a more quantifiable response which could then feed into future proposals. Simply changing things is not sustainable if the National Trust wishes to retain the support and trust of their members and the wider heritage community.

Dr Ben Cowell, Regional Director for the National Trust in the East of England
Dr Ben Cowell, Regional Director for the National Trust in the East of England

Valiantly defending the position of the National Trust online is Dr Ben Cowell FSA, Regional Director for the National Trust in the East of England.  Dr Cowell is also Deputy Chairman of The Heritage Alliance. He worked formerly for English Heritage and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and has published widely on aspects of history and heritage.

Below is his specially commissioned response to the debate and the controversy, putting the other side to the argument about how the country house can be presented today.

‘Re-presenting the Country House’ – Dr Ben Cowell

Visitors to Dunham Massey this year, as last, are shown a different version of a house they might know well. The saloon, a masterpiece of Edwardian country house design, has been stripped bare. In place of the fine furniture are metal beds, medical cabinets and hospital screens.

The Saloon, Dunham Massey - contrasting traditional and WWII themed presentation (Images: ©National Trust Images - James Dobson/Andreas von Einsiedel)
The Saloon, Dunham Massey – contrasting traditional and WWII themed presentation (Images: ©National Trust Images – James Dobson/Andreas von Einsiedel)

Dunham Massey has been returned to the time when it was Stamford Military Hospital, a place of repair and recuperation for soldiers from the Western front during the First World War. The effect is electrifying. A team of actors has been engaged to re-enact imagined scenes from the lives of those – both soldiers and nurses – who were known to have been at Dunham during this time. The details of their lives have been carefully researched, even if the dramas are fictions, albeit highly engaging ones.

Nurse closing the shutters at Dunham Massey (Image: Christopher Davies / Correct Aperture Photography)
Nurse closing the shutters at Dunham Massey (Image: Christopher Davies / Correct Aperture Photography)

Not everyone has appreciated what the National Trust has done with Dunham Massey during its temporary ‘Sanctuary from the Trenches’ re-fit. But huge numbers have. The property has had its most successful year by far, and recorded levels of visitor satisfaction have rocketed.  People love the sense of connection with lives as they were lived a century ago in the midst of unparalleled global conflict.

Does this inevitably point the way for every National Trust country house? Of course not. Has ‘Sanctuary from the Trenches’ been such a success that we are now wondering where else we might make other temporary, experimental interventions? Of course.  And there is nothing new here, since we have perpetually made changes to the way the rooms of our mansions are shown, whether to draw out a particular theme or highlight a particular age in a house’s history.

The National Trust is committed to offering ‘experiences that move, teach and inspire’ by raising the standard of presentation and interpretation across our historic mansions. That is apparent from our recent strategy document, Playing Our Part.  There is no single policy or approach. Curatorial decisions are made in situ, respecting the genius loci.  The curatorial eye needs to be constantly on the move, seeking out new ways to display or experience things, in order to delight or otherwise engage visitors.

Ickworth, Suffolk (Image: ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra)
Ickworth, Suffolk (Image: ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra)

Two examples from my patch exemplify this. At Ickworth, following the highly successful recreation of the basement rooms, our attention has turned to the grand display rooms above them in the Rotunda. These rooms were conceived by Ickworth’s creator, the 4th Earl Bristol, as a gallery for his impressive collection. In the same spirit of wanting to show off the artworks to best effect, we are trying out some new approaches, confined to just a few rooms on the ground floor.

In the Library we’ve temporarily left the room bare (following cleaning work on the electrolier chandelier) in order to focus attention on the pictures and the chandelier itself.

Ickworth Electrolier: throwing new light after its clean (Image: ©National Trust)
Ickworth Electrolier: throwing new light after its clean (Image: ©National Trust)

Informal seating has been provided in order better to allow visitors the chance to stop and pause. When the project is complete (we’re only part way through the re-presentation at present), lighting elsewhere in the Rotunda will be enhanced, allowing works such as Titian’s portrait of an unknown man to be seen wholly afresh.

Up at Felbrigg, on the North Norfolk coast, another experiment is about to begin. Here, the grounds of the house are the venue for Wolf’s Child, part of this year’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Wolf’s Child is a perambulatory work of drama, experienced at nightfall. Visitors will move on a pre-determined walk through the woods. The story is drawn from Ovid; the tales explore all manner of human-animal transformations.

Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk (Image: ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler)
Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk (Image: ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler)

Is this the ‘right’ way to experience the Felbrigg landscape? Ought we not to have moved a single piece of furniture in the Earl Bishop’s palace? There are those who are steadfastly certain of the answers to these questions. I am not one of them. All I know is that there can be no progress in the field of country house interpretation unless we are open-minded to the possibility of experiment.

We must do so in a way that is respectful of the spirit of the place, and we must never make permanent changes that would damage the inheritance that we hold in trust. We will make mistakes from time to time, and will be rightly chided for them. But to not explore different ways of seeing is surely to blinker us to the possibility of greater glories.

I very much thank Dr Cowell for his contribution to the debate and hope that it has helped provide an alternative viewpoint.  Comments can be left below but please remain respectful and on-topic.  The views expressed in the introduction are mine alone and have not been vetted or approved by the National Trust.

12 thoughts on “National Trust ‘stuff’ debate: ‘Re-presenting the Country House’ – Ben Cowell, Director, NT East of England

  1. John Hartley April 11, 2015 / 11:33

    One hears of houses NOT given to the NT because “they” wanted complete control of the contents – with the freedom to move items wherever they chose, both in the house and to other properties. How wise of owners not to accept this deal. Context (as in the manuscript collections in these houses) is all.

  2. Stephen Barker April 11, 2015 / 12:31

    The exhibition at Dunham Massey I can except as a temporary event linked to a specific event, in this case WWI. Although personally the use of re-enactors is not to my taste, I find them somewhat artificial. As for the infamous bean bags at Ickworth, I do not think this is a good choice, for many people they will not be a practical option, surely a better choice of furniture could be found. If the NT wants the ceiling to be admired could it not provide mirrors mounted on trolleys as can be found in many cathedrals. I am sure that the reference to ‘stuff’ was a throwaway remark, but if properties are to be simplified so that it is not hard work for the visitor then one could argue that the property will be devalued and the visitor will receive a distorted experience.
    I appreciate that as time passes the lifestyle of the owners and their servants is becoming increasingly unreal and foreign to the vast majority of people in the country today. The NT has a tricky balancing act to manage the sometime conflicting interests of those who are interested in art history and architecture and those who for the want of a better word are more casual visitors with varying degrees of interest in the property and its contents.

    On a personal note I think it is a good thing that increasingly the previously neglected areas such as kitchens and servant quarters are open to visitors as it gives a more rounded picture of how a property operated. Although to be frank if I visit another kitchen with a battery of copper pots and pans, jelly moulds, sugar loaf and tongs and knife sharpener with a large scrubbed wooden table in the middle my eyes will glaze over. This is an area where re-enactors makes sense as these were working areas and without activity seem lifeless. By comparison the state rooms were for show so to me do not suffer from a lack of activity, leaving the visitor to view the room at their own pace, It would be good if there were fewer ropes so that the rooms could be viewed from different angles.

    It will be interesting to see how this debate develops, with increasing pressure on finances this is a topic that not only faces the NT but all heritage bodies, museums and art galleries.

  3. Philip Arlington April 11, 2015 / 16:02

    Occaisional experiments may be justified, but the problem with Dame Helen’s comments isn’t a curatorial one at all. It is the way that it manifests our “Anti-Elitist Elites” patronising attitude towards ordinary people and contempt for any aspirations they might have to better themselves.

    The National Trust has been taken over by a state sector operative who is obsessed with the standard set of misguided causes: green fundamentalism, anti-elitism, diversity. It should be an alternative to the dead hand of the state, not a collaborator with it. I am glad that I am no longer a member.

    I wish that the National Trust’s houses still belonged to the families. The people who run the National Trust now are not such as I trust to take our culture forward. Culturally, they are still stuck in the 1960s. (I was born in 1972)

  4. Iain Clark April 11, 2015 / 20:18

    The own goal scored by those who wish to make good art and architecture less elitist is that without the superfluous money of the elite there would be no good architecture or fine art. In my book published by SAVE Britain’s Heritage in 1980, all ten thousand Grade one building in England and Wales are listed. Not only are five thousand of these churches of mainly medieval origin, but huge numbers of secular Grade 1 Buildings are also of monastic origin. Add to that some 900 grade one manor and country houses and hundreds of follies, offices and related structures created for the owners of these houses, then you begin to see that if they are removed from the list then you are not left with a great deal.

    Part of the problem is that the Trust is short of money and its play for populism may or may not result in a larger membership, although my feeling is that membership is probably reaching saturation with four million members. Unfortunately in trying to increase membership by dumbing down, it has for some years begun to alienate many affluent members who financially would make a much greater contribution. Indeed, it is quite extraordinary to talk to people who would have automatically been members of the Trust twenty years ago and find how very few of them are now members in the present day. In 1982, I wrote a letter to the then Director General in which I warned that by going for greater membership, the Trust ran a risk of becoming like the Automobile Association, that is people only joined for free entry and a cheap day out rather than a profound interest in art or the environment. This was brought home to me watching a group of supervised young children using the box hedges on the parterre at Cliveden to hurl themselves against it as if it were a catapult, with neither parents nor Trust staff doing anything to stop them.

    The Trust is also not being honest about things. An appeal for a huge sum of money to buy a few acres in North Wales three or four years ago was for such a small amount of land I rang up the Trust to establish that a zero had not been left off the newspaper article. No, it was only for 17 acres they said. Most of the money turned out to be for building a huge visitor centre.

    I am not rich, but what was to be my residual estate is now going to the Georgian group, SAVE and the Countryside Restoration Trust and no longer to the National Trust. I am not alone in my disillusion.

  5. Dr. Bendor Grosvenor April 11, 2015 / 22:46

    That’s a good post from Ben Cowell, but he doesn’t offer any defence of what they’ve done at Ickworth. I have no issue with re-interpretation at all, and think what the Trust has done at Dunham Massey and Upton is terrific. Great. But the library at Ickworth hasn’t been re-interpreted. It has been ruined.

  6. Mark Kirby April 12, 2015 / 18:45

    I suspect that most of those who have been disturbed by the changes at Ickworth would applaud those made at Dunham Massey and the Trust should reflect very carefully on why that might be. At Dunham Massey, there is clearly a commemorative aspect, timed to coincide with the centenary of the First World War and the layout of the room recreates an important chapter in the history of the house and, indeed, nation. Many may regret not being able to visit Dunham Massey during this time but I doubt that any (including within the Trust) would argue that the change should be made permanent. It’s purpose is worthwhile, educative, challenging and almost by definition time-limited.

    The changes at Ickworth are in a different category. Here there is no special commemoration and no special theme being explored. The artworks which the Trust says it wishes to highlight were already in the room before. All that has happened is that other artworks (the furniture) have been removed. Far from improving an understanding of the “spirit of the place”, the sense of domestic context which surely is that spirit has been lost.

    The new Trust philosophy seems therefore to be that visitors are only capable of appreciating artworks in small numbers and that having several types of artwork in one room (painting, sculpture, furniture etc) will only confuse and alienate them. I do not believe this to be true and it is certainly a huge change from the traditional Trust approach. This used to be one in which a house was presented with its contents as an expression of how it was lived in, reflecting changing artistic tastes and social environments across the centuries; the profound sense of trusteeship was evident. Now it seems that houses and their contents (or “stuff” as the DG views them) are seen as problems which have to be resolved by transforming them into curated museum spaces in which themed and changing exhibitions of pieces selected by the marketing manager can take place. More than anything else, this seems to be the core of the change.

    This debate would not be half as worrying if the language used by Trust staff from the DG downwards did not convey such evident disregard for the very collections which they look after. Some of the comments from Trust staffers on Bendor Grosvenor’s blog are horrific.

    I am afraid, Dr Cowell, that I am more concerned, not less.

  7. Evelyn May 4, 2015 / 03:32

    Hmmm. Whatever happened to people just using their imaginations when it came to visiting such places. I know reenactments do serve a purpose- particularly with the medieval periods but bean bags ? Come on. When I visit such places I expect to see each room at its best and most ostentatious presentation. It may only be my predilection but I have a feeling I would be most welcome. Bean bag ? No, thanks !

  8. Jenny May 21, 2015 / 21:45

    Several items at my local National Trust have already vanished. However we do now have a plastic pretend ham joint and plastic fish on display in the Tudor kitchen. Such a shame that the “visitor experience” is now in the hands of an inept, inexperienced marketing man, whose language consists mainly of phrases such as “build the brand”.

  9. Paul Darby June 9, 2015 / 21:10

    …a similar line might be taken with what used to termed ‘Handbooks’ but which are now ‘souvenir guides’…Apparently, or allegedly, visitors now want ‘big photos, quick explanations and bite-size history’. This one doesn’t.
    And nor do NT staff, it seems. On my first visit to Dyrham a few months back, and enquiring about whether anything meatier than the thin fare of a visitor guide was available, a member of staff told me “to be honest, that’s all we have now and it’s a bit naff. You’d be better off trying to find an old guidebook in a second-hand shop.” That says a lot.

  10. Dr Robert J.Ligthelm August 18, 2015 / 10:05

    I specically went to the UK this summer to visit Ickworth and Dunham Massey.
    I was horrified at Ickworth, these are extremely misguided changes. I could not for all the world see anything positive in the changes in the library. It has indeed been ruined. I am not all that old but I sat in one of the beansacks and needed help to get out of it.
    Dunham Massey on the other hand, as it is temporary, and we are in the memorial years of WWI, I found interesting, but am also glad the room is going to be reïnstated.
    I am not a sociologist but I do agree some of the thinking in the NT is misguided and lacks knowledge of what the membership believes in. We can sit in a beansack at home, we dont come to ickworth to sit in one. From friends I have heard positive comment on Dunham Massey, but also as they had never visited before, that they thought it was a shame they hadn’t been able to see the saloon as it was intended to be.
    Please NT think about where you are going. You are a great institution jealously looked at from abroad dont let misguided views of how we should treat our heritage ruin you.

  11. Ben Cowell December 6, 2015 / 18:20

    It’s interesting to review some of these comments at a few months’ distance. The original blog about Ickworth that first created all the fuss was written at a time when the re-presentation of the ground floor rooms was only part-way through. That reviewer saw only half of the picture, if that.

    I hope that visitors to Ickworth during the summer would have been impressed by our sympathetic (and not at all ‘dumbed-down’) interpretation of the Earl Bishop’s life and philosophy, and also by the state-of-the-art lighting now illuminating the paintings in the Smoking Room and elsewhere. The Library was never intended as a major part of the project, though the temporary removal of the furniture allowed us the chance to show the important paintings it contains in a new perspective. Visitors have remained for longer in this room, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive (even of the beanbags, insofar as they are noticed at all).

    I am very proud of what has been achieved at Ickworth this year, and shall be watching what happens next with great interest from my new role. From January I will be the new Director General of the Historic Houses Association, representing those many important houses and collections that remain in private ownership.

    Ben Cowell, National Trust

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