Looking to our heritage

Brexit, Dame Helen Ghosh proposes, has given the National Trust an important role to play in presenting a unified message to the nation about what heritage can mean.

The National Trust was set up in 1895 by a group of what would now be called social activists, “to promote the preservation of places of historic interest or natural beauty…for the benefit of the nation”. The modern version of that is our strapline: “Looking after special places, for ever, for everyone”. Our mission has been interpreted in different ways over the intervening years, including a changing sense of what “everyone” means.

That it should mean more than just a narrow elite was clear from the vision that one of our founders, Octavia Hill, set out for the fledgling organisation; she wrote “the need of quiet, the need of air, the need of exercise, and the sight of sky and of things growing, seem human needs common to all”.

This inclusive concept was also reflected in our early governance, with both the Duke of Westminster and the radical ex-miner MP Thomas Burt serving on the governing committee. One of the most moving responses we ever got to a fundraising appeal was in 1902, when we campaigned to raise funds for the purchase of Brandelhow on Derwentwater. A factory worker sent a contribution of 2s 6d with a note saying “All my life I have longed to see the Lakes… I shall never see them now, but I should like to help keep them for others”.

Acquisitions of countryside – particularly in the north and west – continued briskly through the 1920s and 1930s, and it was only after the negotiation of the Country Houses Scheme with Government in 1937 that we began to acquire the grand country houses for which we are undoubtedly now most famous.

Adapting our priorities to the needs of the time saw us, from 1965 onwards, buying up coastline, to protect it from overdevelopment and ensure that people could get access. Later in the twentieth century we started to acquire more “ordinary” houses, including some of the back-to-backs in Birmingham and the Beatles’ houses in Liverpool. And for the last decade or more, we have been very consciously “opening our arms” to welcome wider groups of visitors, particularly families, by developing more varied and relaxed ways of presenting our places, and putting on specific programmes of activity for children.

But the image of the National Trust as an organisation just for lovers of stately homes persists. When we do anything to challenge that image – offering guided tours of LGBTQ landmarks in Soho or of Brutalist Architecture – we are accused of losing touch with our purpose. One recent newspaper commentator, berated us for being “haunted with guilt about the nature of [our] history and membership: conservative, aristocratic, elitist, bourgeois”.

Like many adaptive organisations, our history doesn’t just have one aspect. And Brexit arguably gives us an even more important role to play in presenting a unifying message to “the nation” about what heritage can mean, whether that’s embodied in our buildings or our countryside. Both have been shaped by people and events that embrace the whole of society, and part of our mission is to make sure that “the nation” feels that what we do is relevant to their lives.

Of course, being “relevant” is not an end in itself. It does have a broader social purpose, though one which is outside our formal remit. If people have a sense of how history has shaped the world we live in today, then they can make more sense of the events that unfold across the globe, the nation or in their communities. And if people understand the past, they can more effectively play a part in shaping the future. Why does British society look as it does today? What are the institutions and events that have shaped it, whether that’s trade and Empire or continuous cultural and economic innovation? Why do the British think as they do about the Rule of Law and the limits of democracy?

These are all themes that we can explore in various ways at our places. A visit to Hughenden, for example, Benjamin Disraeli’s house in Buckinghamshire, is a reminder of the deep roots of the “Eastern Question” which wasn’t solved by the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and hasn’t been solved today. And at Powis Castle in Powys and at Kedleston in Derbyshire, we explore the “bookends” of our relationship with India from Clive of India in the 18th century through to the peak-pomp of British rule in the early 20th. At Quarry Bank outside Manchester, we can tell the story of the roots of the Industrial Revolution, while at Southwell Workhouse we look at the origins of today’s social security systems in the 19th century Poor Laws.

It’s even easier to measure the broader social impact of the 200 million visits we get every year to our coast and countryside. Over one hundred years on, the data supports Octavia Hill’s views on the physical and spiritual benefits of contact with nature and the accessibility of green space.

One way we can measure our success in reaching out to the “nation” is by looking at the make-up of our members and visitors to our houses and countryside. Judging from recent figures from the Taking Part survey produced by DCMS a more varied cross-section of people are engaging in arts and heritage, although some groups continue to be underrepresented. We don’t do as well as we could, though some of our places have particularly strong links with their local community. The Gibside Pub at Gibside in Northumberland is a great example, open on Friday and Saturday evenings for local visitors and families.

Although it’s hard to get precise statistics, observation suggests that our countryside and coast attracts more varied and diverse visitors than our historic properties. When we ask people why they don’t visit our houses or gardens, the most frequent responses are either that they “don’t think it’s for them” or “it would be boring”. We’ve been working hard on the “boring” bit, by putting on a more varied programme of events through the year, and telling more unexpected stories.

But we can’t make assumptions about what people will feel is relevant to their lives. When we’ve talked to focus groups about this, we don’t get predictable results. Some people identify much more closely with the collective history of the place they live, rather than with stories identified with their particular ethnic community. They may feel more connected to the industrial heritage of the North West of England, for instance, rather than with the role of the slave trade there.

In some places, our Trust New Art programme, a partnership jointly funded with Arts Council England and Arts Council Wales, has drawn in a very different demographic; at Felbrigg Hall, for example, a range of audiences were able to enjoy a new piece of immersive landscape theatre, Wolf’s Child, developed with outdoor theatre specialists WildWorks and Norfolk & Norwich Festival. And in 2015 we worked with Beatfreeks at Croome in Worcestershire to host a poetry slam, where six young poets from the centre of Birmingham explored the Capability Brown parkland and then debated – through poetry – whether Brown was a ‘visionary or vandal’.

As well as getting people to come to us, we also need to go to them. Heritage Open Days, held in many villages, towns and cities over a weekend in September, attract around three million visitors every year, from backgrounds much more varied than those many heritage attractions achieve. And we have experiments running across the country in ways to support local people in looking after their heritage and open spaces. This is particularly urgent as local authority budgets get tighter. We are currently working with Newcastle City Council, for example, to see whether some kind of community trust is a sustainable – and scalable – option for looking after their parks and green spaces and preserving them for the next generation. I think Octavia Hill would strongly approve!