Those who care deeply about the stately homes of Britain tuned in on Saturday from a dozen countries around the world to watch a peculiar spectator sport: the National Trust annual general meeting.
The stage was set for a tournament that promised one victor: either the reforming board of the National Trust, determined to move with the times, or a rebellious contingent calling for a return to first principles of preservation and established scholarship.
Renegade challengers from a group called Restore Trust had backed a series of resolutions and prospective council members to give voice to discontented volunteers and members, those who are against moves to reflect growing concerns about the legacy of empire. Three of their candidates, Guy Trehane, Min Grimshaw and Andrew Powles, were elected to the council, although Trehane immediately released a statement denying he represents Restore’s concerns.
The planned mutiny was prompted by a Trust report last year that simply listed 93 properties linked to slavery and colonialism. It contained details of plantation owners and people paid compensation for freed slaves after abolition, as well as those who became wealthy through the slave trade. Included were properties with connections to leading figures in the East India Company, or senior figures in administering colonies, such as Winston Churchill’s home, Chartwell.
It led to outrage from backbench Tory MPs and rightwing newspapers, as well as a complaint to the Charity Commission – a complaint that was dismissed earlier this year.
But all the limelight at Saturday’s AGM was eventually stolen by successful campaigners against trail hunting on Trust land. These practices are a cruel “scam” that should be banned to stop damage to precious habitats, speakers from the hall argued, including one elderly convert to the cause who said she had grown up loving the hunt, but had changed her view. The vote – won by 78, 816 to 38,184 – is not, however, binding on the Trust’s board.
So in the end the trustees mostly prevailed. When submitted votes were verified, those resolutions attacking the organisation’s treatment of curators and volunteers were both narrowly defeated, with help from the chairman’s extra vote allocation. For a fraught five hours, 1,000 members took part virtually. Many more had voted in advance.
Often a controversial event, this year proceedings veered close to one of the blood sports that animated the debate. Cancelled last year, participants had longer than usual to build up a head of steam. “It is rather like a game show, isn’t it, when I say ‘you only have two minutes’?” joked the trust’s deputy chair, Orna NiChionna, who had to referee the lively session.
Former curators alleged the Trust is guilty of an “arrogant abuse” of authority, while Caroline McAslan, a former volunteer recruiter, accused its board of being “disingenuous” when it claims to value its ranks of helpers. Speaking from the hall in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, McAslan said she “felt taken for granted and not listened to” and argued that changes had taken place “with little or no consultation”, resulting in a 25% drop in volunteers during the pandemic.
Traditionalists spoke against the downgrading of curators and the tyranny of visitor targets and one black member questioned why the council members and trustees on the board were mostly white.
The angriest case was made by those who fear the role of curators at the Trust’s properties has been downgraded in an opaque restructuring process. Restore Trust member Lucy Wood, a former museum curator, claimed “arrogant abuse” was evident in the “gimmickry of presentation” at some houses. A focus on making money had driven a staff reorganisation, she believed, with expert curators now outnumbered by “experience and partnership managers” at the Trusts’ attractions.
“Pretentious installations or trite displays” had replaced serious exhibits, she went on, “greatly spoiling visitors’ experiences”, adding “the people who can preserve and explain the exhibits best are those who have the knowledge to understand them.” Temporary displays at Stourhead in Wiltshire and Croome in Worcester, had let visitors down, she said, and many of her friends had resigned their membership and cancelled plans to leave legacies.
Her friends may have left, but despite the furore – or because of it – more have joined. Record numbers of new members joined the Trust last summer – almost 160,000 in August alone – pushing overall membership up to 5.7 million.