Museums come in all shapes and sizes

Helen Ghosh, Issue 118/04, p14, 01.04.2018
When is a museum not a museum?
When is a museum not a museum? Some people might say that it’s when it belongs to the National Trust. The marquis of Lothian and James Lees-Milne who, with the Treasury, were the architects of our 1937 Country Houses Scheme (which brought us most of our houses) were in the camp of “the National Trust is not a museum”. The marquis argued that they should be “suitably furnished as a dwelling house. Nothing is more melancholy than to visit these ancient houses after they have been turned into public museums… dead, lifeless shells.”

Fast-forward 80 years and 142 of our 200 or so houses with collections are Accredited museums – one in 10 of all the Accredited museums in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – making us the UK’s largest museum organisation. But our museums are widely dispersed and in an enormous range of types of property. Our collection of more than a million objects is equally diverse, including a decommissioned nuclear warhead, the beetle-wing dress worn by Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1,000 pieces of Chippendale furniture, a Rembrandt self-portrait and 72 scrubbing brushes.

One of my reflections as I move on from the National Trust is that we have never reconciled the tension between the idea of our houses as private homes, which just happen to welcome more than over 20 million visitors a year, and their status as museums. When you walk into a national or local museum, what do you generally experience as a visitor? You are often welcomed at the door by a staff member or volunteer, but otherwise, you wander at will through the rooms, with the collection carefully labelled or explained. If you want to know more, you might pick up an audioguide, or buy a specialist book.

What happens when you step into a National Trust house? Very often, you will be welcomed by a friendly volunteer who will give you a general introduction to the house, and point you towards the “visitor route”. As you set off, you will find few things labelled. The idea is that you have been welcomed into a private house which, of course, would not be covered in labels.

If you want to discover more about the collection, you might refer to a guidebook, or approach one of the volunteers in the room, who will usually know the answer or know how to find out. That can be quite daunting for some people. As one of our curators said, it must be like the experience during the second world war when you were trying to find your way across country, but all the signposts had been removed for fear of invasion.
Making that journey easier is not a question of “dumbing down”, as some of our critics say. It’s an essential part of our mission to “promote the preservation of places of historic interest or natural beauty… for the benefit of the nation”. If people are inspired and engaged by what they see, they will support that cause. Getting the balance right between personal interaction and technology, and between academic information and emotional connection, is tricky – but it can be done.

One of the things I am proudest of as I move on from the trust is that we are not only spending more than ever on the conservation of our houses, collections and countryside (more than £137m last year), but we have also been able to double the number of curators we have, attracting a wonderful mix of experts in many fields and from many institutions. Their mission is to help tell the story of our places on the basis of the best possible evidence and scholarship, while ensuring that our visitors leave as informed and excited as they would be by a visit to one of this country’s outstanding museums.

Helen Ghosh joined conservation charity the National Trust as its director general in 2012. She left last month to become the master of Balliol College at the University of Oxford