Trust the properties’ wisdom

This month’s Museums Journal (UK) reports on the National Trust’s ‘Going Local’ strategy which gives considerably more management power to local properties, retaining only core functions like financial management, legal services and conservation advice at head office (‘National Trust restructure will lead to redundancies’, by Gary Noakes, p. 5).

The rationale behind the decision is that local staff are better placed to make their properties once more relevant to their local communities, and thus assist the organisation at large in achieving one of its primary aims – to preserve land and buildings for the benefit of ALL people.  The strategy acknowledges the Trust’s previous shortcomings, not the least of which is that many people view the organisation and its properties as ‘not for people like us’.

I think the National Trust has made a very good call here.  Through a system of internal consultants the quality of the work initiated and/or implemented by local staff is expected to remain high, which combines the best of both worlds – expert guidance and local knowledge.  Local staff are without a doubt the ones most familiar with their properties and their audiences (both actual and potential).  By giving more decision-making powers to local managers, their ambition will certainly be to achieve the best for their property within the wider organisational strategy.

Anyone who has ever worked in a heritage organisation whose geographically scattered properties are centrally administered will have many a tale to tell about the pitfalls of such central management.  In my experience, blanket campaigns rolled out to all properties irrespective of their character are particularly lamentable.  No doubt these offer savings in marketing and procurement of materials, but more often than not they are alienating to both local staff and communities alike.  I remember one event initiated by a central catering department for Halloween which was wholly inappropriate for the battlefield visitor centre in question and promptly resulted in an angry letter to the editor of the local newspaper.  Naturally the initiator of the campaign felt terrible afterward, however, any one of us local staff members could have told them that this was going to be the likely outcome.

So I hope the property staff at the National Trust will show what can be achieved when power is given back to locals but backed by central expertise.

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