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National Trust Embarks on a Renaissance of Curatorship

Chelcey Berryhill - Friday December 19, 2014 12:26
Dunham Massey as Hospital

Nurse and patient pose in Bagdad Ward at Dunham Massey, Cheshire. The Trust is commemorating Dunham Massey’s role in WWI with a recreation of the country house’s role as improvised hospital.

As Simon Murray moves from his role as Chief Operating Officer to Senior Director of Strategy, Curatorship and External Affairs, he tells us what he’s focusing on in his new role.

My new role, as my title suggests, is very diverse, but Royal Oak members may be interested in our plans for curatorship and in particular interpretation. Visits to historic houses remain very popular but I’m not sure people enter our houses with an anticipation of excitement, of their curiosity being stirred, of learning something, of being moved. I certainly feel that anticipation when I go to see a film or play or – increasingly – visit a museum. I believe our houses should pack a similar punch.

This was certainly the view of Freeman Tilden (1883-1980), the American interpretation guru who wrote a handbook for US National Park rangers in 1957. It’s a good read and 57 years on, it’s just as relevant. He recognised that interpretation is not just about facts, it’s about engaging people: to spark their curiosity, to tease them into thinking differently and to feel. As such, interpretation is much more than the recitation of facts; it seeks to open a window in our hearts and minds. Or, as Tilden wrote: The chief aim [of interpretation] is provocation, not instruction. A visitor’s experience must, of course, be pleasurable – and the National Trust has done so much in this area over the last decade – but we should also aspire for it to be thought provoking. This is something the great museums like as the British Museum acknowledge and which they have demonstrated in their recent exhibitions: A History of the World in 100 Objects and Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

But when we talk of emotion, it doesn’t mean wishy-washy emotional language. Good interpretation requires knowledge which in turn requires research. So, going forward, we aspire to be at the forefront of research in both the built and natural environment and to use that knowledge to promote a greater understanding of the countryside and our heritage.

So what might this new interpretation look like? Here are a couple of examples.

Leith Hill Place in Surrey was the childhood home of Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of our most important composers. Gabriel Gale, who manages the house, has created a soundscape through the attics, using the voices of professional actors performing a script written by her, which takes the visitor through Vaughan William’s life to a soundtrack of his music. The combination of the story of his life, the black and white photographs of him during his life, objects placed in the rooms as ‘art’ and the views from the window that inspired him, together with his music builds to an emotional climax that brings many visitors to tears.

At Dunham Massey we have created an exhibition called: Sanctuary from the Trenches. On the anniversary of the start of World War One, this takes the bold step of transforming the entire house for the next two years from its normal parade of state rooms laid out in Edwardian elegance to an authentic and thoroughly researched re-creation of how the house was used in WW1as a military hospital. From diaries, photographs, oral history, bills and day-books, a detailed picture of individual patients, nurses and the family are vividly brought to life. And the response from visitors has been extraordinary. Last year the house received 88,000 visitors; to date, in March and April alone, 80,000 people have come through the doors. And the responses have been extraordinary. ‘I was spell-bound’; ‘almost in tears’; ‘inspirational’; ‘amazingly touching’ have been just some of the reactions.

For the last 20 years we, in the heritage business, have all ridden a wave of enthusiasm for the past, but I no longer think interpretation that consists of: ‘This is a portrait of the 6th Duke by Reynolds’, nor attempts to be relevant through endless recreations of below-stairs rooms will satisfy an ever more discriminating audience. I think this is a time for a renaissance of curatorship in the National Trust and I’m really excited by this.