Magazine article The Spectator

What's Wrong with the National Trust

Magazine article The Spectator

What's Wrong with the National Trust

Article excerpt

How the National Trust is spoiling its treasures

Osterley Park on the western fringes of London is a rare survival. A Robert Adam house, with splendid Adam interiors, it's still surrounded by its Elizabethan stables, an 18th-century landscape and classical follies -- in the middle of urban Hounslow. Over the past decade, this Georgian gem has been increasingly despoiled and dumbed down by the National Trust.

The Trust is spending £356,000 to turn Osterley Park into a child-friendly leisure centre. As one of the huge posters strapped to the park fence says, the money will pay for 'A new skills area for young families providing kids with a safe place to learn to cycle and gain confidence'. Why splurge this vast amount of money on something you can already easily do on the paths at Osterley, i.e. bicycle? And why use pointless language like 'skills area' and 'safe place', instead of just calling it 'a place where you can learn to ride a bike'?

It's just a small part of the disastrous dumbing-down of the National Trust -- all in the name of the Trust's great gods: accessibility, interpretation and storytelling. Everywhere you go now at Trust properties, you're never allowed a free thought without being bombarded by idiotic, history-free messages.

At Prior Park, Bath, one of the greatest mid-18th-century landscapes in the country, the grotto has been ruined by an enormous video screen, with a cartoon showing a Disneyfied vision of Prior Park. No facts are allowed to intervene in National Trust Kiddy World. Instead, the noticeboard outside the grotto asks you to 'Think about how each area of the garden makes you feel...'. By the elegant, urn-topped piers at the entrance to Prior Park, a massive purple-and-white poster asks you to 'Join the Cadbury Egg Hunt -- Enjoy Easter Fun at the National Trust.'

Try walking round the garden at Kingston Lacy in Dorset and you can't move for blackboard signs propped against the trees, scrawled on in chalk, saying, 'Snowdrop-lovers are also known as galanthophiles.'

Open a kitchen cupboard in Standen, the arts-and-crafts house in West Sussex, and you're presented with a rolling pin, a mixing bowl and a copy of the Daily Mirror from 1942, with a photo of General Eisenhower on the cover. Why? Who keeps their newspaper in a kitchen cupboard? Move into the dining room and, on a bright spring lunchtime, the curtains are closed, while the table's set for dinner, with electric candles and tureens of plastic carrots and potatoes.

At Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire, at lunchtime, the table in the 18th-century parlour is set for tea, with a plastic fruitcake and a copy of the Daily Telegraph from 3 June 1953, the day after the Queen's Coronation. In a nearby chair, there's a copy of Country Life from February 1976, showing a snowy lakeside scene. So where are we supposed to be? Eighteenth-century Wimpole Hall, summer 1953 or winter 1976? We're never told.

These weird, empty stage sets are upper-class murder scenes -- as if the Earl of Hardwicke has been whipped away from the tea table just as he's about to have a slice of cake, and strangled somewhere in the servants' quarters -- or 'The Servant's Rooms', as they are called in the illiterate signs at Osterley.

The desire for fact-free interpretation is so great that the National Trust has even taken to writing rubbish on doors and blinds. …

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