Harry Mount

The National Trust must stop obsessing about colonialism

The National Trust must stop obsessing about colonialism
Bateman's, one of the properties mentioned in the National Trust's report (Getty images)
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When will the National Trust get it into its thick skull that it’s supposed to look after buildings and landscapes? It is not a political organisation. But now, yet again, the Trust has weighed in with its political blunderbuss, attacking its own properties for their connections with colonialism and slavery.

It has published a document listing 93 properties and places, about a third of the total, with links to colonialism and slavery. Among them are Churchill’s house, Chartwell, thanks to his opposition to self-governance in India. Also there is Lundy island, Devon, once home to prisoners doing unpaid labour and Hare Hill, Cheshire, once owned by a slave-owner. 29 places in all are listed after their owners received compensation for slaves after abolition.

To begin with, we knew all this. Anyone with any passing interest in history will know that many old fortunes were made through disgusting means. But, much more important than that, this is not what the National Trust should be doing. According to the National Trust Act of 1937, the Trust's explicit aims are the preservation of buildings of national interest, along with their furniture and pictures, and the preservation of beautiful landscapes.

That’s all they should be doing. But, over the last 11 years, the Trust has been betraying that original duty. Increasingly, some members among the senior echelons of the Trust have appeared to actively dislike their big houses. At the houses themselves, there is an astonishingly low level of spelling and grammar on the signs and displays, revealing the Trust’s jettisoning of intellect and historical understanding.

It is entirely typical that, over this latest report, Tarnya Cooper, the trust’s curatorial and collections director, said: 

'In the past, we’ve told probably really straightforward stories, possibly from one particular direction. We want to be able to tell more nuanced stories so that we can provide open, honest, accurate and fair assessments of places without feeling anxiety that ‘Gosh…is that the right thing to be saying?’'

She then went on to contradict herself, saying the Trust doesn’t tell stories but just gives hard facts: 

'We are not doing anything more than present the historical facts and data.'

Not true. Over the past nine years, the Trust has increasingly presented a skewed, one-sided view of history, concentrating on LGBT matters, women’s rights and, now, slavery. To suggest that the Trust is giving an objective view of history is plain crazy.

It is a tragedy for the Trust to spend millions of pounds presenting its own warped view of history while it is wrecking its once-hallowed curatorial excellence. Last month, there were the Trust’s proposals for ‘Curation and Experience’, as part of its ‘reset’ programme. The Trust plans to junk all the lead curators in the regions and many junior curators. Suddenly, brilliant scholars of architecture, archaeology, historic gardens, paintings, sculpture, furniture, textiles, silver, and libraries would be sacked. They say that this is because of the £200m loss of income resulting from Covid-19. But why then are they still pouring money into this latest politicised PR exercise?

Also last month, 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, presented his disastrous, warped ideas for the future. He wants to 'dial down' the Trust’s role as a big cultural institution and to move away from looking after English country houses. The Trust, he said, also plans to put its collections in storage and hold fewer exhibitions at its properties to prioritise its role as the 'gateway to the outdoors'.

Great private country houses, such as Blenheim and Chatsworth, don’t take this dumbed-down, highly politicised approach to their treasures – and they are doing fantastically well. Why has the Trust gone down this disastrous route?