How did the National Trust end up in this sorry state?

The once-beloved institution should return to caring for the country’s heritage, rather than denouncing it

Telegraph – 26 May 2021 – Harry Mount

Losing trust: having spent years highlighting for historic slavery links with its houses, the National Trust is increasingly ‘right on’

In the heritage world, David has just beaten Goliath. This week, Tim Parker, chairman of the National Trust, resigned after seven years in the role – and just 24 hours after a rebel group of members launched a bid to depose him at the annual general meeting.

Restore Trust – of which I am a member – was only founded last month. It already has 10,000 supporters and a fighting fund of £50,000. It was founded to restore the trust to its original aims – to concentrate on conservation, an aesthetic experience, a sense of place, a feeling of welcome and an apolitical ethos. It has claimed a major scalp in the shape of Tim Parker.

“This is the first step in a very important process,” a Restore Trust spokesman told me, “returning the trust to its true purpose, to care for the nation’s heritage – you can’t do that if you’re denouncing it. It’s vital it now has a chairman who cares about Britain’s heritage and can rebuild trust in the organisation.”

It’s also a victory for grassroots members and volunteers over the National Trust management. During the past four years, the trust has become disastrously politicised. That – and the trust’s catastrophic dumbing-down – has been snowballing for 20 years.

This decline has been at the hands of the trust’s management. The members and volunteers have only ever wanted what the trust was founded to do: preserve buildings of national interest, along with their furniture and pictures, and preserve beautiful landscapes. It’s the management that’s turned political.

Tim Parker, pictured at Ham House, Richmond

Last September, the trust published a report into the links between its properties – including Chartwell, the home of Winston Churchill – and Britain’s past colonial and slavery connections. The report was sloppy and littered with errors, like so much of the trust’s literature in recent years.

Parker’s tenure as chairman since 2014 has only intensified the politicisation. 

At last year’s annual meeting, he said the trust had “not become a political organisation that has been taken over by a bunch of woke folk”. Yet in recent years, the trust has become increasingly political in its focus.

There’s nothing wrong in the trust researching historical slavery links with its houses. But, as well as publishing its self-lacerating 2020 study, snappily entitled ‘Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery’, in recent years it has launched a series of political initiatives slanted at attacking historical attitudes – and the owners of its houses – for not following modern progressive opinions.

Any idea of praising the trust’s extraordinary contribution to British architectural, artistic and intellectual history has been eclipsed by this obsession with attacking “old-fashioned” attitudes.

In 2018, the trust explored women’s history and suffrage via the anniversary of women gaining the vote in 1918. Of course, women getting the vote was a marvellous thing, but it is the trust’s job to look after houses and landscapes – not to celebrate political anniversaries.

In 2017, as part of the trust’s ‘Prejudice and Pride’ season, it outed as gay Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer (1906-69), the kind man who’d given Felbrigg Hall to the trust. It also tried and failed to stop volunteers who refused to wear rainbow-coloured lanyards from working with the public.

Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer outside Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk

That year, in 2017, I went to the National Trust’s AGM in Swindon. Many of the members were up in arms. They had trekked hundreds of miles to the meeting on a cold, windy day – and their complaints were comprehensively ignored.

One member, Stephen Green from Carmarthen, was outraged about what happened at Felbrigg. He asked the chairman if he would stop the trust being a political campaigning organisation that represented the “few who live and breathe political correctness”.

Parker was the master of the non-apology apology: half-saying sorry, and then quickly snatching it away. He admitted that, with the benefit of hindsight, the Felbrigg incident had been a “small misjudgement”. But then he went on to say he was surprised and bemused by the hoohah.

At the AGM, Patrick Streeter, a National Trust member from Essex, asked for an apology over the Felbrigg saga. Parker apologised “for any offence caused” – another classic non-apology apology.

The trust also denies the catastrophic dumbing-down of its properties. Parker said: “We are not engaged in some social engineering experiment to thin out the intellectual content of our house presentation.”

But the thinning-out of intellectual content at trust properties is undeniable. Last year, the trust set out its proposals for ‘Curation and Experience’, as part of its ‘Reset’ programme. It planned to get rid of all the lead curators in the regions and many junior curators. That meant losing talented scholars in architecture, archaeology, historic gardens, paintings and artefacts.

Also last year, in a report called ‘Towards a 10-year vision for places and experiences, version 2.1’, Tony Berry, the trust’s Director of Visitor Experience, said he wanted to “dial down” the trust’s role as a big cultural institution and move away from looking after English country houses. The trust planned to put its collections in storage and hold fewer exhibitions at its properties to prioritise its role as the “gateway to the outdoors”. The 10-year strategy also attacked the “outdated mansion experience”.

In 2017, I gave the Charles Douglas-Home Memorial Lecture, which I entitled “Betrayal of Trust: How the National Trust is losing its way”. I spent months touring trust houses and was staggered by the intellectual collapse of an organisation I’d revered since childhood.

The trust’s house guides were littered with spelling mistakes. At Hughenden Manor, the Buckinghamshire house of Victorian prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, the trust’s official literature described his climb into “high soceity”. Isaac D’Israeli, Disraeli’s father, was called “Isaace”; closely was spelt “closey”.

It’s not just the lack of attention to detail; baby language was everywhere at trust properties. At Osterley Park, the elegant Adam house on the fringes of west London, the servants’ quarters were decorated with a sign saying: “It was the scullery maid’s job to empty and clean the chamber pots every morning. A very smelly job.” A tree stump at Hughenden had a sign next to it, reading: “Please do not climb on me.”

Chartwell in Kent, the former home of Sir Winston Churchill, was part of a report by the National Trust into links between its properties and slavery connections

The trust has been dumbing down for 20 years, ever since Dame Fiona Reynolds, a senior civil servant, became its director general.

Dame Helen Ghosh, Reynolds’s successor as director general, accelerated the dumbing-down. She even removed furniture from the fine Regency library at Ickworth House, Suffolk, temporarily replacing it with beanbags. There was “so much stuff” in trust houses, she said, that it put people off. Exhibits needed to be “simplified”.

The trust is an astonishingly successful organisation, with just under six million members. And yet its management is tortured by paroxysms of self-hating agony because those six million people are largely white, middle-class and middle-aged.

 “Accessibility” is the trust’s great false god. Of course, anyone can go to any trust property they want. And yet the trust is deeply depressed when the visitor profile is dominated by the pale and stale. And so, they’ve become obsessed with changing that profile.

A former chairman, Sir Simon Jenkins, was once told by a trust employee that it “feared” many of its new members were “over 50”. As Jenkins said: “In 15 years, half the population would be over 50 and a third over 60. It was good news.”

Most charities, anywhere in the world, would be delighted with six million members, of any age or skin colour. Only the National Trust is mad – and rude – enough to take against the background of its members: the people who pay for the trust, volunteer for it and love it.

And, as a now-dead former senior employee of the trust once told me: “What you must understand is that a lot of senior people at the trust actually don’t like old buildings.”

This whole process – the politicisation and the sad dumbing-down – need never have taken place. English Heritage has maintained its properties with no dumbing down and none of its members has complained.

Here’s hoping the new National Trust chairman will end the politics and the hatred of the past and concentrate on the job – looking after its artistic, architectural and landscape treasures.

Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English. To order your copy for £8.99, call 0844 851 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop