Why is the National Trust waging war against its members?

15 October 2021

5:58 AM

15 October 2021

5:58 AM

The National Trust culture war has just stepped up a gear. Ahead of the Trust’s AGM on 30 October, the Trust has launched an extraordinary attack. Its target appears to be Restore Trust, a new body trying to rein in the National Trust’s political obsessions.

‘Our founders set out to protect and promote places of historic interest and natural beauty for the benefit of the nation. That means we are for everyone. Whether you’re black or white, straight or gay, right- or left-wing,’ the National Trust has said.

This implies that Restore Trust (of which I am a member) is against individuals from different backgrounds. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Restore Trust simply wants to do exactly what the Trust spokesman advocates: protect and promote places of historic interest and natural beauty for the benefit of the nation.

What Restore Trust objects to is how that simple aim has become increasingly politicised in recent years: a drive that has eclipsed the Trust’s central role of protecting and promoting those places.

The National Trust spokesman goes on to say that institutions like the Trust ‘must not be used as a punchbag, to divide people, or be led by extreme views’. But isn’t that exactly what the National Trust has done in recent years, by introducing political measures that have divided the membership like never before?

For 20 years, the Trust has been on a non-stop mission to dumb down its properties and highlight political campaigns. On a recent tour of NT properties, I was astonished by the illiterate baby language used on the proliferating signs.

Every year, there’s a new campaign, whether it’s about slavery, women’s rights or LGBT. All those aspects are fine to study as part of a bigger picture. But the Trust increasingly marginalises its once mighty, scholarly past, rooted in art and architectural history, to replace it with a crude ‘We are all guilty’ political mission.

Last year, the Trust revealed its ten-year strategy: to ‘dial down’ its position as a cultural institution and row back from being the custodian of the English country home. The plan was to store collections and prioritise being a ‘gateway to the outdoors’. The Trust declared, in awful managementese, that the ‘outdated mansion experience’ is serving a ‘loyal but dwindling audience’.

There is only one party in this row that is trying to politicise things – and that is the National Trust. Restore Trust’s avowed aim is to remove politics and return to the Trust’s original purpose. At the AGM, Restore Trust will back two resolutions: one to stop volunteers having to back political campaigns they don’t support; and another to stop the catastrophic intellectual and curatorial decline of the Trust.

These are the resolutions:

1. Members’ resolution about volunteer management

The membership deplores the recent treatment of the National Trust’s volunteers and calls on the Trust to deal with its volunteers in a thoughtful and respectful way.

2. Members’ resolution about curatorial expertise

The membership deplores the fact that many expert curators have been made redundant, and those remaining have been seriously undermined in their work. By rejecting their expertise, the Trust has made some reckless decisions on the presentation of its properties.

In both cases, Restore Trust is trying to reverse damage that has been inflicted in recent years. It isn’t trying to introduce any of its own political measures. Let’s hope for the sake of the National Trust’s future that both resolutions are passed at the AGM.

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