Skip to content

Why is the National Trust challanging histories?


The report on Colonialism and Properties now in the care of the NT including links with Historic Slavery published in September 2020, have stirred a predictable response of support and outrage, mimicking the wider cultural wars of our times. However the ongoing online recriminations and cheers miss the point. The NT is neither attempting virtue signalling nor finally addressing the wrongs of imperial history. In fact it is facing up to an existential threat to its very existence.

How so? Well the interim report, which states it is not apportioning blame to anyone, is an attempt to open the debate and is actively seeking feedback from its membership. This publication, which consisted of a fairly staid series of essays (The East India Company, The British Raj after 1857 and Banking & Bankers to give some example chapter headings) would not raise any eyebrows from a recent student of early modern and modern British history. However it has caused considerable outrage on the twitter sphere. Comments range from the NT pandering to marxist politcal tendencies to being preachy and ramming down the BLM agenda where it’s not wanted. So why examine our colonial past and the links to historical slavery now?

In a naive world, NT may have wanted to address these stories because they are interesting, relevant and topical. Although all true, I dont think that is the key reason. Nor is the NT doing this because they have been infiltrated by lefty Marxists and do gooders who are woke, as many of its critics claim. In fact this is part of a programme to keep the NT relevant. Following research into visitors, volunteers and other stakeholders, its become abundantly clear to the NT, that it will struggle as the Baby Boomer generation is suceeded by generations X, Z and Millennials. The NT is a business and it has to maintain its membership, run profitable cafes and shops and recruit and keep an army of volunteers. After extensive research NT is convinced that to survive it needs to change to ensure it is relevant to younger generations. Future NT volunteers have higher expectations of volunteering, it has to be rewarding and chime with their values and beliefs. Younger people are likely to volunteer their time, but compared to their parents generation they are more likely to do so for causes they support. They have a tendency to be careful consumers, have greater awareness of diversity and inclusion and be more likely to be interested in social justice and support brands that take a stand on issues they care about. That might be one reason so many corporations (Fitbit, Nabisco, Microsoft, AirBnB and Unilever to name a few) are jumping on the BLM bandwagon.

NT is a brand too, it needs the buy in of its audience, which includes potential volunteers. If younger generations think that the NT is not being truthful about colonial history and is ambigious about issues that they care about, the NT is likely to decline and become irrelevant to them. The current examination of history may alienate a sizeable minority of the Baby Boomer generation, but the NT understands that its future lies elsewhere. As the majority of Baby Boomers move on from early retirement to being less active, they become increasingly less important to NT, while other audiences become more important. Demographics dictate the National Trust can’t afford not to address newer generations.

Shiny New Box Syndrome

The museum world has been blessed or blighted depending on your point of view with the shiny new box syndrome.  Perhaps the most dramatic case was the Millennium projects that peppered the UK nearly 2 decades ago.  Lottery funding was directed to developing major new attractions, including The Public in West Bromwich, the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield and of course the mother of all shiny new boxes, the Millennium Dome in London.


The Millennium Dome, a shiny new box that is actually more hemispherical!


The National Centre for Popular Music, Sheffield


The Public, West Bromwich










Many of the more successful projects were those redevelopments of existing sites, such as Norwich Castle, the Great Court at the British Museum or Thinktank, Birmingham’s new Museum of Science & Technology in the Eastside of the city.

Funders and major stakeholders have a soft spot for major projects which create shiny new boxes. It’s a  great way to make a statement, and an opportunity to create a legacy for future generations.  Unfortunately the long term viability of many of these new sites has not always been sustainable.  Many of the millennium era projects failed to live up to their long term ambitions. Once the capital investment had dried up, the often heroic visitor number projections and ambitious income targets proved hard to realise.

Successful projects were often extensions or redevelopments of existing organisations which had a better understanding of their business and greater revenue support from their community.  In Birmingham and Norwich it was significant local authority support that underpinned these projects.  While the British Museum’s Great Court formed part of a much larger plan to move the British Library to a new site and provide public access to the heart of BM site.  In all three cases these institutions were able to draw upon national if not international collections and expertise to utilise their new spaces for the public benefit.


Thinktank, Birmingham’s Science Museum, which is actually a box and quite shiny too, and going strong after nearly 20 years!

Some notable millennium era shiny new box successes have included the Eden Project in Cornwall and The Deep in Hull.  In both cases they survived the post millennium environment.

Footfall and retail delight or despair?

UK museums have been a steady performer in the leisure and cultural world over the past decade, despite large cuts to many institutions, museum visits have generally held up well.  In a digital world where consumers can order almost anything online, the museum experience provides a uniquely authentic trip which you don’t get from the internet or manufactured visitor attractions.  For instance Hampton Court Palace or Lyme Regis museum provide fascinating and engaging venues and perhaps most importantly, something that is “real”.  Lyme Regis is embedded in the Jurassic Coast with 120 million year old dinosaur fossils all around you.

However museums are very much part of their environment, which in many cases is in or near the local High Street.  So to certain extent the success or failure of the local museum is linked to that of its High Street.  Post Christmas retail reports have indicated that the UK High Street has experienced a mix bag of results.  Although Next enjoyed above expected sales, this was garnered from their online sales, while their bricks and mortar sales were marginally down,  Debenhams suffered from poor sales, a retailer which majors in many UK High Streets and has a weak online experience.  If footfall in the High Street diminishes as more consumers reach for their mouse or smart phone this could impact many museums who benefit from a busy High Street with plenty of passer-bys.  Many cultural venues also have retail and catering offers as well as galleries and gardens, so they to rely on visitors coming in and spending in the museum shop.


A bit too quiet

Perhaps the humble local museum is a resource that could benefit retailers?

At the moment UK towns and cities are keen to make themselves more attractive to shoppers.  One way would be to widen their appeal, making the local town centre a more attractive place to visit, not just to shop, but also providing cafes, bars, parks and entertainment.  Indeed some purpose built shopping centres are already providing a range of non retail offers to lure consumers.  Although the traditional UK High Street can try to emulate the out of town shopping offer, their trump card is likely to be their historic and cultural environment, which an out of town shopping centre or online retailer can never match.  The local museum can provide an important element of the local cultural and historic environment.  Although many towns are already attempting to make their centres more enticing to shoppers they don’t always think of the less obvious, or at least less obviously commercial assets of their town.


Here are some real ammonites, best experienced by their home on the Jurassic Coast

Workhouse museums

As curator of the Red House Museum, a former workhouse, I am painfully aware of how little workhouse related material we have on public display.  The material poverty of workhouse inmates resulted in few artefacts being kept for posterity for future generations.  At the Red House of course we have the building, a mid Georgian purpose built brick workhouse, which has not been radically changed since it ceased to be a workhouse.


Red House Museum & Gardens with Christchurch Priory lurking behind

In an attempt to explore the story of the workhouse, a workhouse museum network has been established, led by Gressenhall Farm Museum in Norfolk, but other museums that were former workhouses in Wales, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, as well as the Red House Museum in Dorset. We all face similar challenges.  The scarcity of material collections can often result in generic interpretation and sometimes stereotypical illustrations of the past, as typified by Dickens’ Oliver Twist.


Gressenhall Workhouse before it became a museum

A more accurate picture of the story of old workhouses,the inmates and the story of welfare is far more complex. Workhouses radically changed over the last couple of hundred years. The same institution could be very different in the early nineteenth century from the same one in 1900.  Workhouses did provide a last resort for the destitute poor, but they also provided schooling, care for the elderly, sick and in some cases the mentally unstable.  Until the 1834 Poor Law Act local parishes were left to manage and operate workhouses pretty much as they saw fit, meaning that some workhouses were humane places while others were downright awful.  The 1834 Poor Law Act brought uniformity to the workhouse system resulting in a harshness that was designed to act as a deterrent.  This was gradually softened and by the early the twentieth century many institutions had introduced cottage homes, compulsory schooling and more comprehensive healthcare. The original purpose of the workhouse was eventually superseded with the introduction of the Welfare State after the Second World War.


The Workhouse Master and Mistress courtesy of Dickens


Urban regeneration leaving culture behind?

Many of Britain’s cities are undergoing regeneration and massive investment.  But sometimes feels like culture and tourism rarely figure in these grand plans.  The redevelopment of Paradise Circus in Birmingham does not extend to any major improvements to the adjacent Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.


Tudor House in Southampton


Meanwhile the gleaming future is arriving across the road







Down on the south coast, the extension of West Quay shopping centre in Southampton is nearing completion.  However a stroll from the Central station past the building site that is West Quay and onto the historic quarter, reveals the disparity in investment between retail and cultural sectors.  Despite millions being spent on the expanded shopping centre the nearby ancient streets of Southampton, packed with heritage, look abandoned and, dare I say it, a but unloved.  Tudor House museum is a great place to explore with its garden, cafe and historic rooms is tucked away from the busy shopping heart of Southampton, unfortunately this corner of the city appears to struggle to attract locals or tourists.  Which is shame as the potential visitor footfall could be much larger especially as Southampton is the cruise ship capital of Britain.

Cultural agencies have noticed when it comes to investment in the UK, it appears that commercial and manufacturing are a priority while tourist and cultural venues are a lower priority.  For some reason the heritage sector is associated with low skill and low pay work, while retail and industry is considered more worthwhile and productive.  Time to challenge these stereotypes?


Bugle Street in the heart of the historic quarter, but where are the people?

New museums for autumn 2016

Discovering hidden gems in the museum world is always a welcome delight.  This autumn the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading and the Museum of Marine Life in Kimmeridge, Dorset, opened their doors to the public.  Both sites* have received large grants to develop their galleries and are well worth a visit, despite having low profiles.


Unlike MERL, the Museum of of Marine Life, is a completely new venue located along the Jurassic Coast in the Purbeck.  The rural setting is the home to the Etches Collection of unique marine fossils.  Steve Etches, a local collector, has discovered and brought together over 2,500 specimens includes crocodiles, sharks, flying reptiles, corals, shells, insects, crustaceans, ichthyosaurs, belemnites and dinosaurs.

The building doubles up as a community space for the village of Kimmeridge.  While the museum gallery uses audio visuals to show off the amazing fossils and explore the diverse marine life that lived in the Jurassic period over  150 million years ago.  The walls above the main gallery have CGI projections giving visitors the impression of being underwater with prehistoric creatures swimming above. At the end of the gallery the visitor can view the conservation studio and sometimes see Steve Etches preparing his latest specimens.  Despite all the high tech aids, the amazing fossil specimens provide a sense of wonder, even to the uninitiated, and makes you want to go out the nearby coastline and see if you can find some fossil beasties!

*The Etches Collection which formed part of the Kimmeridge Trust received £2.8 million and MERL attracted £1.8 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund

Museum of English Rural Life: A review

The Museum of English Rural Life, or MERL, is one of those hidden attractions tucked away  on the edge of Reading town centre.  Following a major Heritage Lottery Fund grant the museum reopened in October 2016.

Despite some very discreet signposting (virtually none from railway station) MERL was receiving a steady stream of visitors on a Sunday lunchtime.  The museum is located in the University of Reading campus with an unobtrusive red bricked front.  The University collection contains a  significant number of agricultural vehicles, tools, costumes and archives telling the story of the countryside over the last couple of hundred years.  The museum has spent a lot of effort developing its main galleries, with new displays, audio visuals, touch screens and quality showcases.  The galleries attempt to tell the story of the people who lived on the countryside through print, audio testimonies and film clips,  as well as the technology used.  The museum brought in new technology prompting the visitor to interact and engage with issues relating to farming.


The museum timeline right up to Brexit

A large part of the museum is effectively an open store, especially upstairs where the visitor can wander around the shelving stacks and see the “off display” collections (behind glass doors).  Imaginative use of audio, activated by sensors, provides an engaging atmosphere that is not too overbearing.  At the rear of the gallery is the Ladybird Collection, displayed as contemporary art, behind wall high showcases.  Which feels a bit odd, as I was an avid user of these books, and rarely showed much respect at the time when flicking through them.


Using the walls as open storage, very effective.



Ladybird Books as art, but behind glass

Although the museum had only been reopened for less than a month, some of the touch screen equipment was not fully operational.  The computer based games seemed overly complicated, and there were few low tech interactive alternatives.  Prior to redisplay the museum included a significant chunk of space looking at the future of the countryside including GM, self-sufficiency and climate change.  The new galleries place far less emphasis on these issues, or at least they are less prominent, which was disappointing.

Overall the museum is well worth a visit, whether you are interested in farming, the countryside or just want to know how your food appears on your plate.  There was enough to keep families with children occupied and the new cafe has plenty of space for kids to play with the generous number of rural themed toys while you can sip a hot beverage.

Museums and the Contemporary

Can museums be involved in current affairs?  The recent Brexit referendum might have dominated the media over the past couple of years in the UK but there was little evidence of this in museum displays or shows.

Exhibitions at museums tend to focus on subjects or place, such as First World War or Historic Palaces such as Hampton Court or Queen’s House, Greenwich.  Major exhibitions often take a long time to develop from idea to opening, making it hard for museums to respond quickly to current events.  New Walk Museum, Leicester was able to create an exhibition celebrating the city’s football club Premiership success this summer only 45 days after the club were crowned English Champions.


New Walk Museum’s Fearless Foxes exhibition

However should museums get involved in contemporary or cultural affairs such as Brexit?  The museum sector is extremely wary of straying into this territory.  Many museums are dependent on public sector grants, and usually government tends to react badly if it sees museums trespassing into the domain of the politician.  Independent museums also see contemporary topics as an unnecessary distraction from more typical programming (big events, historical exhibitions and commercial hire) which can bring in significant income. It is unclear if an exhibition about the Brexit campaign would have generated income or been popular among a weary public.

It is also doubtful if many museums have enough material to put on display about recent events.  Contemporary collecting is a costly exercise, you need people to collect, catalogue and store objects, resources most museums rarely have in abundance in the age of austerity.  To put it bluntly the current priority for museums is to survive and generate income and not reflect on current affairs (unless it becomes lucrative).

Regeneration… and culture?

Off to Birmingham today to a meeting with the Arts Council.  It is an opportunity to revisit this midland hub after a 10 year absence.  A lot has changed, like many larger UK cities the cranes are in abundance and signs of infrastructure work are everywhere.  The Midland Metro tram has eventually made it into the city centre, the 1960s central library building is now just a massive hole in the ground and the railway station has been revamped.  Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery is in the middle of this redevelopment but still largely unchanged.  The City Council has relinquished control of its museums and galleries and they are now run by a charitable Trust, which includes Thinktank at Millennium Point in Birmingham’s Eastside.


Chamberlain Square, work in progress with the City Museum in the background

Birmingham has been going through a spate of transformations in the past half century.  A 100 years ago it was still the workshop of the world, although you can still glimpse manufacturing around the city if you look hard enough.  The motorway city of the 60s and 70s has been softened, with the barriers between road, pedestrian and canal broken down.  Indeed the canals round Brindley Place are now packed with countless chain eateries.  The pace of redevelopment has meant that even the late twentieth century rebuilding is being knocked down or revamped.  Perhaps the most dramatic work is around Chamberlain Square next to the museum were the 60s municipal buildings are being replaced with 2 large office blocks.


A Brummie Guggenheim? No its New Street Station

It almost seems that the cultural, or at least, the museum sector has been left behind.   Does culture have a part to play?  A lot of this development is financially driven and the mantra of inward investment seems paramount.

FutureTrends for Museums…

Today the news has been covering the Kings Trust/Nuffield Trusts report on the increasing cost of care for the elderly.  The underlying causes of this story have massive implications for society including museums and the cultural sector.  In short the population of the UK is ageing fast.  There are more elderly people around and their care costs are increasing at an accelerating rate while public sector spending on adult care is struggling to keep up.


For museums this is good and bad news.  Older people tend to be the bedrock of museum volunteers, an increasingly vital component of keeping museums open.  They are also a good source of museum visitors, bringing their grey pounds to museum shops and cafes.  However as care for older people moves up the agenda, public sector funding is moving from discretionary services (museums and community bodies) to caring for older people.  Meanwhile total public spending is either declining or at best flat.

The challenge for museums is maximise the benefits of the increasing number of older people and minimise the impact of less public funds.  As it happens one of the museums I work for is located in Christchurch, which has the highest proportion of over 65s (nearly a third of the local population), the museum also receives a significant local authority grant (which has been reduced recently).   We like to think we provide an attractive offer to older folk run with help of older people.  To paraphrase a more famous saying – one day all towns will be like Christchurch.