And so the tragic dumbing-down of the once-great National Trust continues, at breakneck speed. In its latest dimbo announcement, it has declared its intention to 'dial down' its role as a big cultural institution and move away from being the custodians of the English country house.
An internal briefing document says the Trust intends to put its collections in storage and hold fewer exhibitions at its properties to prioritise its role as the 'gateway to the outdoors'. The ten-year strategy attacks the 'outdated mansion experience...serving a loyal but dwindling audience'. The Trust will instead promote 'specialised experiences' and stop holding specialist exhibitions for 'niche audiences'.
In fact, the Trust has been following a similar strategy for at least the last five years. The Trust is now split into two factions. On one side, there are the Tweedies, the clever, erudite experts who know everything there is to know about art, architecture and landscape. On the other, there are the Trendies, who actively dislike the past and prefer fun over knowledge and facts.
For decades, the Tweedies have ensured the Trust was the greatest custodian of the greatest collection of country houses in the world. They kept their collections in tiptop shape and presented them to the world with scholarship and insight that were transferred to visitors of all backgrounds and ages.And now the Tweedies are being pushed out by the Trendies.
In another recent announcement, the National Trust laid out its proposals for ‘Curation and Experience’, as part of its programme to address the £200m loss of income resulting from Covid-19. The Trust proposes removing many of the Tweedies – the lead curators in the regions and many junior curators. At a stroke, brilliant scholars of architecture, archaeology, historic gardens, paintings, sculpture, furniture, textiles, silver, and libraries are to be kicked out.
Yes, the National Trust has been a roaring success in recent decades, on the verge of having six million members – something no other country in the world has got close to. But the catastrophic mistake by recent director generals, particularly former civil servants Dame Fiona Reynolds and Dame Helen Ghosh, was to think that dumbing-down increased the numbers of members.
I am all for opening up the landscapes the Trust owns and for getting as many children and families in to the properties as possible. But you can do that at the same time as maintaining those curators and their irreplaceable scholarship.
On a recent tour of National Trust properties, I was astonished by the illiteracy and idiocy of the public signs. Houses and gardens were plastered with error-strewn, patronising messages. At Hughenden Manor, Isaac D’Israeli, father of Benjamin Disraeli, the Victorian prime minister, was called ‘Isaace’. Guidebooks were littered with spelling mistakes: society spelt ‘soceity’; closely spelt ‘closey’.
It isn’t just that the Tweedies have been kicked out. They have been replaced by badly educated, semi-literate employees who don’t understand Britain’s history and the extraordinary part played by our great country houses in it.
Scholarship was replaced by madly politically correct opinion. Dame Helen Ghosh even removed furniture from the Regency library at Ickworth House in Suffolk, temporarily replacing it with beanbags. She declared there was ‘so much stuff’ in Trust houses that it put everyone apart from the middle-classes off visiting; so exhibits had to be ‘simplified’. She preferred instead to bang on about green issues, as an eco-warrior who claimed ‘extreme weather is the single largest threat to our conservation work’.
The whole attitude is immensely patronising, implying that most people can’t understand beauty and history unless it is packaged in kiddy-sized portions.
I remember visiting National Trust properties as a child in the 70s, when they were still beacons of knowledge and scholarship. I didn’t need to have illiterate, patronising signs to explain the magic of places like Bodiam Castle and Sissinghurst, when I was a five-year-old. Children’s minds are incredibly imaginative. I could populate Bodiam with imaginary knights. I could fill the gardens of Sissinghurst with stories of medieval derring-do.
And when I grew up, I could then appreciate the grown-up, intellectual view of the world that the Trust used to give. Now they only give the patronising, kiddy view to the visitors.
The Trendies have destroyed the Tweedies – and it is a national tragedy.
Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Penguin)