23 September 2020

The National Trust should be a safe space from the culture wars

By Kit Wilson

In totalitarian societies, all culture eventually gets frogmarched into championing the cause. Under Stalinism, for instance, even music — the most abstract of art forms — was required to convey, say, idyllic peasant life in the fields. Communism slithered its way like an amoeba over the press, the courtrooms, and the arts, absorbing every last bit of civic life into itself. Anything that so much as alluded to other, non-political, ways of thinking was immediately neutralised, lest it cracked the Communist facade — with all its beguiling frescoes of a blissful utopia — and revealed behind it a world of all sorts of mysteries: religious, spiritual, and human questions that no political project could ever adequately answer.

Ours, thankfully, is a free society. Our civic bodies are permitted — encouraged, even — to sit at a separate table from the politicians and ideologues and fling things in their direction without any repercussions. Which makes it all the more curious that so many of our institutions have nonetheless gone ahead and arm-twisted themselves into complete ideological uniformity.

The latest in this ever-growing list is the National Trust. In an internal document leaked to The Times last month, its Visitor Experience Director, Tony Berry, spells out plans to “dial down” the Trust’s role as a “major national cultural institution”, proposing instead to “re-purpose” its country houses for a variety of more “relevant” functions. In a phrase that may as well have been planted by Russian trolls to bring down Western civilisation from within, he claims the National Trust needs to “flex our mansion offer to create more active, fun, and useful experiences”.

Now, I realise skirting past a phrase like “flex our mansion offer” is a bit like ignoring a corkscrew in your kidney, but let’s scroll forward a little — the key word here is actually “useful”.

What, exactly, constitutes a “useful” visit to a stately home? And for whom, indeed, should it be “useful”?

You see, I genuinely mean it as a compliment of the highest order when I say — as a National Trust member myself — that most of my trips to their properties have been absolutely, utterly useless. My experiences have often been enriching, illuminating, even educational — informing me, indeed, among other things, about the many unpleasant aspects of our history. But at no point did I consider those days out useful.

What Berry presumably means, however, is that the National Trust ought somehow to be socially useful — promoting a progressive narrative in order to change the world. This seems to be a growing sentiment at the Trust. Last year, one of its curators complained, for instance, that “same-sex desire and gender diversity have generally been given little space” by its exhibitions. Is it possible — just possible — that if you passionately believe these things need more exposure (and there’s nothing wrong with that!), that the National Trust might not be the right outlet?

But those inhabiting the box seats at the Trust evidently believe, at a time when slogans like “white silence is violence” or “there’s no such thing as non-racist: only racist or antiracist” are increasingly fashionable, that it’s impossible, irresponsible, or immoral, even, to remain neutral about issues of social justice today.

It’s hard to stress, however, just how important it is that in a free society certain areas of life do remain neutral, that civic organisations avoid simply becoming interest groups. We desperately need institutions within which people from all backgrounds can shelter from the culture wars and discover a different kind of commonality — our democracy depends on it. Young people in this country have a zillion ways to encounter progressive ideas, the National Trust does not need to be one of them.

After all, it is not just any institution. Its founding purpose, dating to 1895, was supposed to be “to look after Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty permanently for the benefit of the nation across England, Wales and Northern Ireland”. For 125 years it has preserved for us — all of us — hundreds of buildings, thousands of paintings, and one of the finest furniture collections in the world. At a time when our history is, understandably, hotly contested, it’s more critical than ever that the National Trust remains a fixed background against which shifting opinions can be brought into relief.

Which is not to say there’s anything wrong with highlighting the role the slave trade played in financing some country houses — this is simply history. And if new information comes to light, who would really mind the guidebooks being updated? But the National Trust is being duplicitous: the alleged rationale behind it recently releasing a list of properties with links to colonialism and slavery was to “do justice to the true complexity of the past”. But by lumping together the properties of slave traders with, say, Rudyard Kipling’s home — since “the British Empire was a central theme and context of his literary output” — it’s doing precisely the opposite.

This is either a distasteful bit of virtue signalling or, at best, a sign that the organisation is, as the historian Mark Kirby says, “frightened of celebrating the inheritance they have”. But the real scandal is what Tony Berry calls a “revolution”: the repurposing of certain stately homes for things like “festivals” and “commercial operations” and meddling with their contents: “moving objects or taking them off display where needed to make spaces more flexible and accessible”.

Why? Well, because, according to a recent statement, the Trust thinks its houses need to be made more “meaningful and relevant for the 21st century”. But here’s the problem: you cannot make history more “meaningful and relevant”. It either is, or it isn’t. You can paint a Nike tick on a Tudor bonnet and it might become more “relevant”, but it ceases to be history.

So just leave it alone. When the Trust complains that its role has remained “fundamentally unchanged since the 1980s”, it misses something obvious: that the whole point of preserving things is to leave them fundamentally unchanged.

It’s hard not to think that the National Trust bureaucrats yearning to do something more relevant and socially progressive are simply in the wrong job. But it won’t be the bosses leaving. Instead, the organisation is axing 1,200 jobs, including many of its curators — you know, the actual specialists — and property managers.

There’s something galling about the Trust cutting so many of its lower paid staff loose, and turfing out tenants, under the pretence that it’s “in service of local audiences” — as though its administrators are simply doing what the public really want. But having reduced itself to a purely functional institution, it justifies its cuts in purely functional terms: financial necessity. It’s a huge gamble, and one that seems driven more by ideology than genuine economic considerations. And, if I had to guess, I’d say by trying to become more relevant, it’ll likely achieve the precise opposite.

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Kit Wilson is a writer and musician.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.