Controversy Over National Trust Reenactment Policy

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I was somewhat surprised when visiting the National Trust Derbyshire property, Calke Abbey, in August 2011 to be greeted in the entrance hall by a gentleman dressed in historical costume, a late seventeenth century braided coat and luxuriant periwig. Calke Abbey is the English unstately country house that was saved by the British nation in 1984 following a noisy campaign and a massive government grant.

The National Trust, set up by author Beatrix Potter and others to protect the English landscape from encroaching urbanisation and industrialisation, took on board the preservation of English country houses after the great age of the country house weekend gave way to the post First World War depression.

National Trust accessibility policy

The Trusts standard presentation is to display the inside of the house as though the family that lived there had just stepped out, and to place silken ropes just inside doorways to prevent the public actually handling the myriad of antiques and collectables, or treading mud on the carpets. Generally, its work has been about preserving art and architecture and making it accessible in a look, dont touch way to its extensive membership. The taking of photographs has been generally discouraged or forbidden, so again I was surprised at Calke to find that non-flash photography was no problem at all.

Is historical reenactment Disneyfication?

So how are the National Trust using reenactment at their many historic buildings, and what is the aim of this change? The Trust report for 2010/2011 pledges that one of its primary aims is now “bringing places to life through imaginative, warm-hearted and inspiring storytelling, so that people will want to return time and time again to discover more and tell others about it.” Rope barriers have been removed at some houses, and guests allowed to sit on the antique furniture. Medieval knights have appeared at older properties, and local control of premises allows local histories to manifest through reenactment.

The change has been contentious: John Goodall, an editor at Country Life magazine, told Trust members at the Annual General Meeting, “I don’t see how any discerning, intelligent audience is going to be fobbed off by this kind of window-dressing of properties.” As national newspapers derided the strategy as Disneyfication, Chairman Sir Simon Jenkins was able to present a robust defence, quoting improved membership numbers and a large increase in visitors in response to its reenactment measures.

Reenacting life at Calke Abbey in 1700

Calke Abbey is built on the site, and incorporates some of the remains, of a twelfth century Augustinian priory that continued in religious ownership until 1538. Its current entity was largely built in 1701 to reflect the rise in fortune and power during the 17th century of the Harpur family, who had taken ownership by about 1620. The actors in historical costume reflected the time after the English Civil War but before industrialisation.

One of the gentlemen was wearing richly woven dark blue jacquard brocade and fine stockings, the other a fine red velvet coat trimmed with gold braid. Both were happy to chat (in character) to visitors. Her Ladyship clearly knew her stuff, but largely confined herself to demonstrating that she knew the correct etiquette of her age, and that we visitors perhaps did not. This seemed to delight many of the adults who converged on her as we circulated through the upstairs reception areas, the saloon and the drawing room.

The Downton Abbey effect

As TV award-winning hit drama, Downton Abbey, gripped the viewers imagination with series one, the National Trust became fully organised to add value to the viewers experience of series two. This is by both providing historical reenactment of life below stairs at many of its most popular houses, together with enablement of researching family histories through its website.

The ropes had not yet all been removed at Calke Abbey, and the sense of precious treasure still prevailed in some respects, but the actors in historical costume definitely enhanced the experience for many of the visitors during my visit. As Europes biggest conservation body and an independent charity, the National Trust has to both raise money and invest in people to continue its work. Reenactment initiatives seem to be working in the interests of both.