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Why is the National Trust challanging histories?

September 22, 2020


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.

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