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I've lost my trust in the National Trust - Lisa White

Blog | By Lisa White | Oct 24, 2020

The Chairman of the Charity Commission has criticised the National Trust for straying from its purpose – looking after buildings and landscapes. After years of working for the Trust, Lisa White is devastated by proposals to sack its senior curators

My love affair with the National Trust (NT) began wondrously in 1960 – 60 years ago.

It ended last weekend, as love affairs sometimes do, in a fog of bewilderment and pain. How come?

It all began at Montacute House. Being a West Country child, I went there at the age of ten and, with tingling excitement, climbed the stone stairs on my own to the top floor, to be amazed by the vast, empty expanse of the Long Gallery.

Apart from churches and aircraft hangars, I had never been in such a huge space, and it fascinated me.

I explored all the little rooms at the sides and counted my footsteps along what were then the bare boards of the 180-foot-long gallery. It was sensational.

I returned soon and often and, in 1964, bought my first guidebook. I still have it. It cost 1s 6d, had no illustrations, and was written by the pre-eminent Elizabethan-architecture historian Mark Girouard. In two paragraphs, he explained the purpose, significance and later history of the space, and I was hooked.

A second early and equally captivating visit, with an elderly grandmother whose driving was terrifying, was to Stourhead gardens. Smitten again!

So my childish infatuation developed from excitement and wonder into curiosity, intellectual discovery and discernment. Through NT houses and gardens, I learned how to look, learn, judge and love even more deeply – and what a rewarding affair it was.

Exploring took me further afield across England and Wales and I learnt the basics of architectural history: mellow medieval (Cotehele), exultant Elizabethan (Hardwick), boisterous Baroque (Ham House), crazy Rococo (Claydon), neat neo-Classicism (Osterley Park), virtuous Victorian (Cragside) and soothing Arts and Crafts (Standen). I found the quirky places (A la Ronde, Blaise Hamlet), the tumbledown places (Alfriston Clergy House, Bradley Manor).

I began to differentiate between what my great mentor at the V & A, Clive Wainwright, referred to as ‘old and Real Old’ – Gothic Revival versus real Gothic. It was a marvellous education.

I began to learn about things, too: Tudor needlework, Grinling Gibbons carving, Irish glass, mahogany furniture and taxidermy (Calke Abbey!), not to mention mangles, bath tubs, coal scuttles, coaches and ploughs.

Learning through NT collections led me to train as a curator at the V & A, become a tutor in decorative art history at Bristol University and the Director of the Attingham Summer School for the Study of Historic Houses and Collections (otherwise known as the international curators’ boot camp).

In return, I gave my time for free to the NT as a member of the Wessex Regional Committee, the Arts Advisory Panel, as a specialist adviser, lecturing for the NT and Royal Oak Foundation across the USA, and delivered training programmes for newly appointed managers of the historic properties.

In doing so, I encountered some of the finest scholars in Britain, both those who worked within the Trust and those who advised, unpaid, because they knew it was worthwhile.

So why the sudden end of the affair of a lifetime? At the beginning of August, the NT announced its proposals for what is now called ‘Curation and Experience’ as part of its ‘Re-set’ programme which addresses the £200m loss of income resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. It proposes the removal, at a stroke, of all the senior curatorial posts at the centre of the NT, the lead curators in the regions and many of the recently appointed junior curators whose posts had only recently been created.

Distinguished, internationally renowned scholars of architecture, archaeology, historic gardens, paintings, sculpture, furniture, textiles, silver, and libraries would be swept out. Similar posts in conservation would be ‘closed’, and existing staff invited to apply for a harshly reduced number of redefined jobs or take redundancy. The consultation period for these proposed changes will last until mid-September.

As a lifelong member and supporter of the NT, I am dismayed. I wonder whether deleting the Trust’s excellence in scholarship and conservation at a stroke is the best way to proceed. It will be almost impossible for the NT to rebuild this precious resource.

While I am sympathetic to all organisations facing the pandemic’s impact on their operations, I have the impression now that the NT is behaving harshly and uncharitably to its own people, and wrecking what it should value most.

I implore its senior management team to think again.

While I still love the properties and the collections, I have lost trust in the Trust.

Lisa White was Chairman of the National Trust Arts Panel, 2012-16