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Creating the right atmosphere: for people and for collections

Ben Cowell, The National Trust

Ben Cowell

The theme of this event is the relationship between the two imperatives of access and conservation. My brief this morning is to talk in particular about the access side of the equation – providing the policy context for why questions of access matter. As I hope to show, using examples from the organisation I work for, I believe there are creative ways in which potential conflicts between access and conservation can be resolved. The Catch 22 does not need to be a zero-sum game.

It is, I think, something of a cliché and an over-simplification to suggest that promoting access is all that current government cultural policy seeks to do. On the other hand I don’t think anyone has improved on Giles Waterfield’s satire, The Hound in the Left Hand Corner, which deals with a particularly eventful day in the life of a fictitious national museum, the Museum of British History (rebranded as BRIT). DCMS makes an appearance in the novel as the Department of Cultural Affairs. The department requires the museum’s urbane director, Dr Auberon Booth, to fill in daily time sheets on his activities: ‘whether on management, finance, staff, sponsorship, social inclusion, advice to regional museums and the rest of it’. Needless to say, we’re told, ‘there’s no box … for research or study of the collections’.

Or conservation, one might add, despite the fact that the entire plot of the novel turns on a discovery made by Friederich von Schwitzenberg, the Head Conservator. Later on we learn that the Department of Cultural Affairs was itself almost renamed as, simply, Access!, until ‘it was realised that this might produce confusion’.

The novel, which was published in 2002, carries the usual disclaimers at its start that all characters are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental – but the same cannot necessarily be said of the policies it describes. The first term of the new Labour government saw the access agenda pushed to the fore. The job of cultural policy was to ensure ‘access for the many, not the few’. Perhaps the very renaming of the Department of National Heritage as the Department for Culture was indicative of this shift. While the term ‘heritage’ speaks to the idea of inheritance from past for the benefit of the future, the word ‘culture’ when used in a policy context is more suggestive of experience in the here and now: immediate, accessible, and of the zeitgeist. 

The particular triumph of Chris Smith’s time as Secretary of State was the reintroduction of free admission to those national museums that had introduced charges in the 1980s. The policy was almost immediately deemed a self-evident success, because of the huge increase in the numbers of visitors that accompanied it. At the latest count, visit numbers to the museums that formerly charged have risen 125% since December 2001, and this increase has been largely sustained over the period. It was no temporary blip, although it has been pointed out that this was also the period when the early wave of museum and gallery improvements funded from the national lottery came fully into effect.

It’s not clear to me whether the increase in numbers to the national museums following free admission has necessarily had a detrimental effect on the conservation of collections, though I would be interested to hear views on this today. Rather, the criticism has been that the £45m a year that is needed to compensate the museums for the loss of visitor admission income represents an opportunity cost in terms of the investment in conservation activity that has been foregone.

But is this necessarily the case? Getting more people interested in museums and heritage might have longer term benefits for conservation. It can encourage a lifelong interest in the arts and humanities, leading to greater understanding and respect for objects inherited from the past. And it can stimulate awareness of the importance of taking care of our physical environment – as the Demos report from last year argued.

We mustn’t forget too that ‘access’ in this context can potentially mean two quite distinct things. Under one interpretation, access refers to the increase in the overall number of visits to a particular site – whether by attracting new customers, or promoting more repeat visiting.  But promoting access can also mean attempting to level out the social biases within the audience for culture – so that visitor audiences better reflect the demographic make-up of the country as a whole (regardless of whether overall numbers go up, down, or stay the same).

Government has adopted both of these concepts of access over time, as shown by the Public Service Agreements it agrees with the Treasury as part of the spending review process.  Under the 2004 Spending Review, DCMS’s PSA 3 focused on increasing audiences from particular social groups. Under the 2007 spending review, PSA3 was replaced by a new cross-government PSA target, PSA21, the purpose of which is to broaden participation across the population as a whole.

How successful has Government been in increasing social equity in the audiences for culture? The Taking Part results have shown that in fact there has been relatively little movement in the social composition of audiences for heritage and museums in recent years. This slow progress to meeting the DCMS’s targets was highlighted in a recent National Audit Office report of English Heritage’s participation activities. The report suggested that while English Heritage was well known for its expertise in conservation, it needed to do more to understand and promote ways of increasing participation, especially among diverse audiences.  

The House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee’s report into Science and Heritage meanwhile took a completely different tack. The Committee thought that DCMS had given too much emphasis on access, to the detriment of conservation and heritage science. They noted that ‘[w]ider
access, while desirable in itself, means more damage, more wear and tear’. And they levelled the charge that DCMS had been busy accumulating the golden eggs of access, while paying scant regard to the goose that laid them.

My only conclusion is that this is clearly a debate where views are polarised, and where it is sometimes difficult to see the middle ground. But I do think that it is possible for there to be more of a symbiotic relationship between looking after physical assets and drawing direct use value from them.

I’d like to spend the rest of the talk giving some examples from the National Trust which hopefully demonstrate how it might be possible to reconcile responsibilities for the conservation of heritage with the promotion of greater access. As you know, the Trust has been pursuing its charitable mission since 1895 to promote:

“the permanent preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest.”

Our holdings include nearly 300 historic buildings with collections open to the public, of which around 150 are registered or accredited museums. We estimate we have around 2.5 million objects – most of which are on show at our properties. We also look after a great deal of open countryside, coastlines, mountains, forests and farmland.

Even though our mission talks of permanent preservation, we are in the business of managing change.  Managing the potential for conflict between access and conservation is something we’ve had to deal with throughout our history. At Stonehenge in the early years of the twentieth century, for example, even before the Trust had acquired its extensive landholdings, there were ongoing disputes between those groups keen to conserve the stones by fencing them off, and those groups equally concerned to promote open access to the countryside.  Tensions like these of course continue into the present day, and cannot be evaded. They are part and parcel of what organisations like ours have to deal with and confront.

This is recognised in our strategy wheel. Although engaging supporters is currently the main priority, we follow a ‘triple bottom line’ approach in making sure that we balance this against conservation performance, financial performance and investing in people.

At the moment the Trust is enjoying a good year. Our visitor numbers are up by 18%. Membership is up, as are sales from our shops. These sort of positive figures are shared by others in the sector, and are in part a product of the more favourable conditions for domestic tourism this year – mindful though we are of the continuing economic problems the country faces.

But they also reflect the significant emphasis we are now placing on visitor enjoyment as a key performance indicator. Everyone in the Trust shares a single target – to try to ensure that 75% of our visitors have a ‘very enjoyable’ experience as measured by exit surveys. The figure is currently just under 70%, so this is a target with real stretch. It places additional emphasis on properties to offer our visitors a good day out – from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave. In addition, we are now opening our properties for longer hours, more days of the week, and more months of the year than ever before. How is all this impacting on our conservation efforts?

We do in fact have a key performance indicator which assesses the conservation performance of our properties. We had originally set our targets quite low here, given the emphasis on our visitor enjoyment KPI. But as it turned out properties have not only been performing well on the visitor enjoyment front, but have been able to combine this with improvements in conservation.

This sounds counterintuitive perhaps given the catch 22 that we are discussing this morning, and we are only in the early days of monitoring these particular performance indicators. But I think it does show that access and participation are not always the enemies of effective conservation. Indeed, at the Trust we have found it more productive to link the two together.

Showing Conservation in Action to our visitors is often incredibly popular. Our programme of visits and guided tours on the theme of ‘putting the house to bed’ show how conservation techniques themselves can be a tool for promoting access. At Arlington Hall visitors can see demonstrations of how to protect, pack and store textiles. Open days at Cothele see visitors experiencing candlestick cleaning, waxing chandeliers and black leading. And at Little Moreton Hall our conservation cleaner, Ron, wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan 'Conservation cleaner please ask me a question'.

Treasure Forever is our new public campaign focused on physical objects. Our visitors are being encouraged to send in images of the objects that matter most to them – not necessarily the ones with the most monetary value, but the ones that have most meaning and resonance. We plan to select the best and most imaginative objects and put them on show in properties around the country. We are also using the opportunity of the campaign to give our visitors care cards with hints and tips on how to look after different sorts of objects at home.

Another relatively new approach has been to allow much more physical interaction with our properties. Our properties are pretty unique as museum spaces: we already allow quite a high amount of physical interaction, just by inviting people to come and visit the houses.

In West Midlands a group of curators and conservators have been trying a new approach. It is known within the Trust as the ‘Atmospheres’ project, and it involves re-presenting rooms within certain houses in order to create an immersive and absorbing physical environment. In those selected rooms, visitors are able to pick things up, examine them, sit on furniture, and enjoy sounds and smells in ways that are not the usual thing you expect in a National Trust property.

In each case the ‘atmosphere’ is based on careful research into the actual story associated with the property. So for example, at Wightwick Manor the intended atmosphere is for the visitor to imagine themselves in the year 1900. The Billiard room is set for an evening of drinks and entertainment with the curtains drawn and lit by the original electric lighting. Books, newspapers and Country Life magazines are available to read. Visitors can enjoy a game of billiards – thanks to the fact that the table has now been re-covered. They can smell the cigars and smoke from the fire and listen to background music from the gramophone. In the Dining room, next door the fire is lit and the food on the table and on the serving hatch indicate the lavish meals that the family would have enjoyed with friends.

At Croft Castle meanwhile, the property theme of Pleasure, Power and Politics is conveyed through two rooms. In the Saloon it is the year 1777 and the room is set for an evening party with music and candlelight. Visitors can sit by the fire, enjoy a game of cards, learn fan etiquette or even have a go at dancing. Upstairs in the Ambassador’s room, the year is 1818 and the room is presented as a mourning room with black veils draped over the mirrors. Visitors are given a condolence card which describes the tragic story of the suicide of the physician Sir Richard Croft, 6th Baronet after his involvement in the death of Princess Charlotte during childbirth.

I think this project has successfully brought together conservation and access. Conservators have been involved in the project from the start: offering advice on the limits to which the property can go in promoting access to the collection. The rooms are carefully arranged and have a high degree of historical accuracy, although of course there is much in them that is recreation rather than authentic original.

Our evaluation of the project shows that a majority of visitors – 62% – thought that the approach had enhanced their visit ‘a lot’. It has helped overturn preconceptions of our properties as dry or rather formal places, and has enhanced the significance of the historical story associated with each site. Interestingly, though, we have also picked up a degree of uncertainty among visitors about actually touching objects – suggesting that there is some way to go before habits ingrained by years of obedient heritage and museum visiting can be completely abandoned.

My concluding comment would therefore be that the Trust is perhaps more willing to take a few risks these days. We recognise that unless we connect with our audiences, and our potential audiences, the long-term future of our organisation is potentially at risk. We have a charitable purpose to look after special places, for ever and for everyone – and it stands to reason that that is not an objective that can simply be met by locking things away in safe storage.

If we don’t continually refresh our offer and enhance the experience for visitors, we may not be around in a hundred years to continue our conservation work. With the current economic climate we are focused on a single key performance target. Rather than aiming purely at an overall increase in visitor numbers or indeed diversity of audiences, this seeks to drive up overall levels of visitor enjoyment so that we encourage longer and more repeat visiting. But at the same time we are showing that we can do this while still being true to our conservation principles and objectives. Hopefully this is evidence that there can be productive and creative outcomes from attempting to deal with conservation’s Catch 22.

Page last modified on 11 nov 09 10:39