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Is the National Trust "Disneyfying" its properties?

The National Trust is often seen as a rather staid and conservative organisation but over the last year this image seems to be changing. January's Newsletter described how the Trust had taken on the UK Government by campaigning against changes to the planning laws. While we do not yet know the outcome, it seems that the Government may be prepared to listen. So it should!

The National Trust is a formidable organisation. In September last year it gained its four millionth member. Member not visitor. Visitor numbers are up to over 17 million a year, an increase by almost three million in two years. All those membership and entrance fees help to fund the upkeep of more than 300 houses, 250,000 hectares of land and 700 miles of coastline.

In an article in The Times last October, Dame Fiona Reynolds, the director general of the Trust, said that she saw several factors as explaining this sharp increase, not least the current economic situation. A lack of cash for longer holidays has meant that families often opt for more day trips out instead. However, the rise is probably also due to the policy Dame Fiona and the Trust's Chairman, Sir Simon Jenkins, conceived three years ago aimed at “bringing the properties to life”.

This has meant removing many of the ubiquitous red ropes and encouraging local managers to metaphorically blow away the cobwebs and provide new activities. Now visitors can play the piano at The Argory in County Armagh, try their hand at 18th-century parlour games against staff in period costume at Beningbrough Hall in Yorkshire, or lounge on a sofa reading pre-war newspapers in the sitting room of Tranmer House at Sutton Hoo.

Not everyone approves of these new policies and Sir Simon has been accused by design critic Stephen Bayley of wanting to “wreck” the National Trust “with a sort of cretinised vulgarity that would bring Walt Disney into disrepute”. Sir Simon replies that such accusations are “absurd” but recognizes that it is a balancing act. Criticism has also come from some of the 60,000 volunteers on whom the Trust relies to keep its properties open. The Trust may be becoming much more family-friendly but children still risk being told sharply “don't touch” by volunteers at many properties. The large increase in families has not always met with the approval of elderly visitors either.

Another change has been in how properties are refurbished and this was clearly shown last November and December in a four-part BBC 1 series. “The Manor Reborn” followed a team of designers and restorers, most of whom had never worked for the National Trust before as they restored the 16th-century Avebury Manor in Wiltshire. Their radically different approach was accepted with obvious difficulty by some of the National Trust team.

The National Trust is generally regarded as a success story and envied by conservation groups in many other countries. Can it find the right balance and cope with the growth in visitors? We shall have an opportunity of hearing the views of Sir Simon Jenkins when he addresses the NTAB in October 2012. And we may well have some comments and questions to put to him.

Mary Preston
NTAB committee member

Source: Whitworth, Damian "In whom we trust", The Times, Friday 28 October 2011