When I recently visited National Trust properties…

I love National Trust properties.  I’d forgotten how much until I recently visited Polesden Lacey.  So I promptly signed myself up to become a member (again) and I’ve proceeded to visit a National Trust property every weekend since.

Of course, I’m also reading a lot of academic literature and case studies about heritage, its management and its interpretation these days, so I couldn’t help but analyse each visit afterward.  I beg your indulgence for the random nature of the following reflections that I had and which I hope are of interest:

So that’s what they mean about aesthetic value…

I’ve become increasingly suspicious about the values that are assessed in determining which heritage is worthy of legal protection.  Aesthetic value seemed a particularly obscure and elitist criteria which I was ready to (pen-) attack in full at some point.   I’ve still to analyse what sites have actually been protected and to what degree due to their presumed aesthetic value, and yet as I found myself consciously breathing in the peace and beauty of the rolling landscape that surrounds Polesden Lacey, I thought to myself that it is this aesthetic experience that to me makes protecting and preserving this site worthwhile.  I shouldn’t actually have been that surprised by the realisation, for when I asked visitors to Brú na Bóinne (sometimes falsely referred to as Newgrange) in Ireland why the site was significant and should be protected, 17.6 of responses given related to the setting and atmosphere of the place.  [1]  That’s aesthetic value for you right there.

…and it really speaks for itself

It may be chance, but the properties I’ve seen over the past few weeks effectively had no interpretation worth mentioning [2].  At Polesden Lacey, I truly didn’t mind for the enjoyment of the place was quite enough.  Could this mean that buildings and landscapes of such aesthetic value really do speak for themselves, like some writers imply?  My answer is, no – not in the sense of technical understanding.  After I left the place, I had no clue as to who owned it, who built it and how it relates to whatever aesthetic tradition may have been at work.  But did I need that understanding?  After all, I really did enjoy myself…

Enjoyment leads to understanding leads to valuing leads to caring leads to enjoyment…

…or so the cycle goes English Heritage claimed in their 2005 – 2010 strategy.  I’ve not yet found any case studies that support this claim, and certainly in my case (and in the case of the visitors to Brú na Bóinne) we seem to have skipped a couple of steps (such as understanding or indeed even the thirst for understanding that enjoyment is supposed to inspire) and we showed a complete disregard for other steps in the cycle too.

The question of course is: what was there to understand at Polesden Lacey? And: did it matter?

Significance, significance, significance

My solution to the question of when and where and how a site such as Polesden Lacey should be interpreted is to assess significance.  If audiences (stakeholders, tourists) tell you that what the site means to them is peace and beauty, then it may be better not to burden them with interpretation they really don’t care about.  An events programme that takes full advantage of the setting and provides entertainment for visitors to have a reason to repeatedly enjoy the site is likely the better management choice.  You can still bring the site’s own story to the fore: Polesden Lacey, for example, was a weekend retreat where the owner entertained friends and royalty.  I can think of a whole series of events that range from cooking classes to a 1930s evening garden party that would allow visitors to get a sense of what one of those weekends may have been like, and learn about the story of the place at the same time.

And a word about volunteers

It’s really noticable what weight the National Trust places on volunteering – any visitor-related role seems to also deal with volunteering.  In their strategy it makes perfect sense: volunteering is all about providing communities with an opportunity to become involved [4].  On site,  however, I’m much more ambiguous about this.  Don’t get me wrong: I think volunteers are great, and at every site I’ve visited it was very obvious that the volunteers passionately and sincerely cared about ‘their’ house.  But they are not interpreters.  At Dinefwr Castle, for example, I felt positively harassed by an otherwise charming volunteer who insisted on telling me for ten (!) minutes everything I never wanted to know about the minimal knowledge she had of the restoration work that was going on after a recent flood.  It did nothing to improve my understanding of the site nor my enjoyment of it – on the contrary.  I was so frustrated that I couldn’t even look at the room anymore for fear that the lady would corner me for another ten minutes.  It seems that while the Trust’s emphasis on volunteering is laudable, they now need to remember their visitors and make sure that their enthusiastic volunteers are properly trained to engage with an unsuspecting public.

And what am I planning this weekend?  Well, I have another Trust property lined up to visit…and I’m looking forward to it!

Notes

[1] Aesthetic value, when assessed by what usually is a select panel of experts within a statutory body, still seems like a woefully subjective criteria.  I can only embrace it if it is backed by popular consensus.

[2] Dinefwr Castle made an attempt at interpretation, but the mixture of voices and topics and interpretive approaches left me none the wiser about the site’s importance.

[3] For some heritage values this cycle no doubt still holds true.  My guess is that it very much depends on the dominant heritage value and how widely it is shared.

[4] For an organisation that for decades has been seen as an exclusive club whose properties have nothing to do with the surrounding communities, volunteering is also a crucial way of breaking down barriers.

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