Has the National Trust gone Disney?

If you visit Arlington Court, in Devon, be sure to have a rummage through Sir Bruce Chichester’s luggage. At Berrington Hall, in Herefordshire, remember to peek into the bedroom of the newly-wed Lady Rodney. And at Lyme Park in Cheshire, you just have to get your children to bounce on an antique bed.

Until fairly recently, when visiting a stately home this kind of conduct might have been considered bad form. At the National Trust these days it is positively encouraged.

As a result, a simmering row over the management of one of Britain’s best loved institutions broke into full-scale war on the eve of yesterday’s annual general meeting.

Earlier in the summer Sir Simon Jenkins, the trust’s chairman, was accused by the cultural commentator Stephen Bayley of cheapening it by introducing populist techniques more usually associated with Disneyland — stewards in fancy dress, interactive exhibits such as the ones listed above and theatrical atmospherics such as cigar smoke piped into the billiard room to create a Victorian atmosphere.

Stop this Disneyfication of the National Trust, raged Bayley. It’s “trivialising” and “shamefully lowbrow”. He added: “The experience of great architecture does not need to be enchanted by dirty tricks from a theme park.”

Jenkins — a former newspaper editor — fought back: “Dear Stephen is talking rubbish.” For too long the past has been presented in a hostile spirit, he said, with “signs that say ‘do not enter’, ‘do not touch’, and ‘do not touch this piano’.” He believes the trust has much to learn from Disney (“a hugely successful organisation”). Indeed, The Sunday Times has learnt that senior managers at the trust were recently sent on training courses jointly run by the House of Mouse.

There has been tension in the trust’s mission ever since it was founded in 1895. On the one hand it has a duty to conserve the nation’s heritage. On the other hand it has to make it accessible. Making it accessible — by attracting more people — can sometimes make it harder to conserve, especially (you might think) when those visitors are rummaging through, or jumping on, the attractions.

For a decade the emphasis has been on access, with membership numbers rising from 2.7m to 3.8m — more than all the political parties put together. Last year every single NT property saw visitor numbers rise by at least 10%.

Which certainly represents a change. Jeremy Paxman in his book, The English: A Portrait of a People, published in 1999, described the trust as elitist and high-handed. That changed with the arrival of Fiona Reynolds as director-general in 2001 and accelerated with Jenkins’s appointment in 2008.

The trust has turned walled gardens into allotments for the socially excluded; introduced camping and mountain biking; and recruited surfers as ambassadors on the beaches of Devon and Cornwall.

As a charity with salaried experts working with unpaid volunteers, the trust is held up as a model for local government at a time of cutbacks. But not everybody inside the organisation is so impressed.

Jenkins, 67, faced a revolt at yesterday’s meeting after introducing proposals to raise the threshold needed to call an extraordinary general meeting from 0.25% to 1% of members.

There has not been an EGM for nearly 20 years, but the change has been described as a battle for the trust’s soul. Rebels said the management’s move was a “barely disguised dictatorship”.

“We’re raising the threshold for calling emergency general meetings,” Jenkins explained, “because they’re very expensive and with electronic mailing lists it’s very easy to get people to call for them and hit us with a huge cost.”

The move provoked more protest at the meeting in Swindon but was passed, with Jenkins even able to discount the postal ballots he could have claimed in its favour. While the ballot papers were still being filled in, Jenkins requested a show of hands which demonstrated a clear majority in his favour.

Not that everyone was happy. In the build-up to the AGM, one disgruntled former member remarked: “We have not renewed our membership. There is so much that is now wrong with the NT. It reminds me of new Labour.”

Like new Labour, the trust’s leadership has been keen to appeal beyond its traditional base — in this case, elderly and from the shires. To attract younger, urban members it has been buying and preserving urban buildings: an old workhouse in Nottinghamshire, the Liverpool council house where Paul McCartney grew up, back-to-back houses in Birmingham.

At the Royal Geographical Society last week, Jenkins explained how he hoped to make homes accessible to the wider public, not just history buffs and graduates.

The trust, he said, should understand that a “prurient” interest in the private lives of wealthy families is a significant factor in the appeal of stately homes. And the move towards interactive, animated history is part of a wider trend.

A property already doing this is Wordsworth House in Cumbria, childhood home of the poet. Restoration work finished in 2004 and staff began using 18th-century “costumed interpretation” in the characters of William the clerk, Sally the nursemaid, Bill the manservant and Amy the housemaid. They bake scones over a coal fire, weigh flour in brass balancing scales and pick herbs and flowers in the garden.

Elsewhere there is a harpsichord for guests to play, card games and a quill pen and ink with which to reproduce William Wordsworth’s original letters. At the same time, management emphasises, much of the house is the same as it always was.

The reaction of visitors to the revamped property has been overwhelmingly positive. Last year 31,429 visited, compared with about 20,000 before 2004.

Helen Dawkins, 44, is a social worker and mother of three boys aged 8, 13 and 16. She has been a National Trust member for 10 years. “There needs to be a balance,” she said. “I want to be able to see the property as it was — but also, as a parent, it’s nice there is something child-centred.”

Janet Mansfield, 63, is a supply teacher: “When we first came here in 1984 — with my three children — I was horrified at how formidable it was. They dared you to enjoy yourself and it was awful. This, as it is now, is what history should be. The house is very attractive because it’s alive.”

John Goodall, the architecture editor of Country Life magazine, has accused Jenkins of deliberately presenting the old days of the trust as worse than they were. “His argument that the curators were like dragons is grossly unfair,” Goodall said.

“He’s painting the past as very black in order to present a brave new world. Maybe the houses were not that accessible to children previously. But people grow into them. There’s no reason to be ashamed if you don’t have a lot of children in these houses. They’re not merry-go-rounds.”

Goodall spoke in favour of a motion suggesting that “bringing houses to life” amounted to “dumbing down” at the AGM, but it was roundly defeated. The Disneyfication is free to continue.

Sarah Staniforth is the trust’s director of historic properties and is keen to defend its collaboration with the Disney Institute on training property managers. “What we can learn is this: when you arrive at a Disney property you are treated as a human being by someone who smiles and cares that you have a good day,” she said. “This is not about turning our properties into theme shows, but about the loos and the shop and the tea room and the car park.

“One of the things that stuck with me was the enormous car park at Disneyland in Los Angeles. Every day people lose their cars because it’s so big, even though they’re warned to make a careful note. And they get cross. But Disney teach staff that even when it’s the visitor’s fault that something has gone wrong, they have to deal with it in a respectful way.”

FOR many in the trust the row over Disneyfication is a sideshow. The real problem is a programme of decentralisation, a deeply unpopular reorganisation of management that could leave some properties unable to cope, put long-serving experts on the sidelines and even risk the trust’s global reputation for conservation.

At yesterday’s meeting it seemed a bigger issue than the ballot on the EGM.

Under the Going Local programme, the trust is reducing the number of regional offices in England from nine to six, devolving decision making to more than 170 property and general managers. They will be able to keep a percentage of the profits and will be encouraged to be entrepreneurial.

A spokesman said the structural shake-up — which could involve up to 60 redundancies — should be in place by Christmas. But there are problems: some of the IT systems are not ready, some property managers are unable to find out information about staff wages, others are struggling with the retail and catering systems.

Staff are to go through assessments in January to determine whether they should keep their jobs. Some expect to be asked to stay on for a short while until the problems have been resolved. “It’s very hard, as staff, to be told you are out of a job and then you are in a job,” one central administrator said.

Those who stay on will see their jobs change, said another insider: “Conservation staff are no longer just doing conservation but also ‘public engagement’ — giving lectures, for instance. Inevitably, this will affect their ability to work as conservators and curators.”

It will be more difficult to change the approach of the volunteers on whom the trust relies so heavily. Anthony Evans wrote to The Times to say volunteers felt they had been overlooked by management. He warned that the trust may run into problems finding more willing workers.

“Over the next two years the trust is moving to opening houses seven days a week. No one seems to have addressed their minds to the question of where the extra volunteers will be found or how it will be possible for staff to carry out necessary cleaning and maintenance, which is now done on days when the houses are closed,” Evans wrote.

Others suggest the trust is abandoning stewardship. Jenkins disagrees. “We’re spending more on conservation than ever before — £100m this year. We are committed to conserving what we have: the buildings and the objects within them. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it in new ways. In the past, to protect objects from strong light, many properties kept the blinds down all the time. Now we give the guides light meters.

“Obviously, if you have a Chippendale sofa you don’t let people sit on it. But not everything is equally precious. There are plenty of chairs that people can use.”

Switching easily from serious to comic, Jenkins adds with a twinkle that visitors might even be allowed to play the pianos: “But only as long as they are at least grade 7.”

Additional reporting: Robin Henry, Katie Glass.

1845 words. First published 31 October 2010. © Times Newspapers Ltd.