On the 31st October 2013, a “Meet the Trainee” exhibition was held at the National Trust HQ Heelis in Swindon. The Heritage Skills Passport Scheme funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) consists of traineeships in House and Collections management, Visitor Experience and Gardens and Parklands management. Being one of ten of the first trainees who ‘graduated’ in June 2012, I went to Heelis to represent the House and Collections management first years.
As a conservation assistant at Osterley Park and House, we chose to focus on the controversial 363 day openings, and the advantages and challenges faced by Osterley and National Trust properties already or moving toward opening 363 days per year. Within eighteen months, Osterley had gone from five day to seven day to 363 day opening so it seemed appropriate to discuss and display a topic so close to home.
The response to 363 has been mixed, however most people and properties have been extremely positive about it. These are some of the comments from staff, volunteers and visitors:
“363 day opening makes us more accessible to our visitors and adds value to our membership offer” CP
“We’ve had to adapt quite a lot as a Conservation team to meet this challenge but we can say that it is possible and our supporters love the fact we’re open all year”, SP
“364 definitely increases the amount of cleaning required (inevitably hours previously reserved for the deep clean in the closed winter season are used up just completing the daily clean and opening, SP
“For the necessary resources like extra hours or staff we had to make a really strong case to our GM/PM and enlisting our Conservator’s enthusiastic support has been vital for this, SP
“We haven’t been able to manage our high level clean for all the spaces, The challenge for us now is to look at managing the winter clean”, CO
“Opening our properties 364 is a no-brainer. Our supporters have told us they want it. Our competitors do it”. HMc
“I accept that NT properties are closed during the winter for ‘putting the house to bed’, houses are often to dark and cold to visit during this period anyway”. Anon
“I like the idea of having access to my local NT property without having to research if and when it’s open” Member
“It’s good as an ideal but in reality the opportunities and challenges of each property need to be considered on an individual basis (might not be achievable for all properties)” Staff member
To summarise, these are some of the considerations across the board:
It is great that the Trust is changing and becoming more accessible for all, though increased opening must be considered on a property by property basis. There is such a variation of properties in the Trust that there could never be a general rule for opening 363 as this would not be practicable.
It would be great if outside spaces and tearooms could be open more, but only if this is viable on a property level. So much has to be taken into consideration, such as staff time and costs, works that need to be completed during a closed period, time for events etc. Increased opening could potentially impact on availability for filming opportunities, which is an important income and marketing tool for many Trust properties.
For historic houses it is a far more complex issue. As the National Trust we have taken on properties with the promise and responsibility to look after them forever for everyone. In order to ensure that they do last ‘forever’ we have to undertake conservation work, much of which can only be done when a property is closed. We are trying as much as possible to move away from traditional ways of doing conservation behind closed doors and to engage the public with our work through conservation in action. It is traditional for properties to close in the winter or ‘put the house to bed’ not just because of conservation requirements, but because the working and visiting conditions may become very difficult.
If we also consider historic housekeeping and the traditional use of our houses, many would only be used for half the year and for the rest of the time looked after to the highest standards by a team of servants.
In addition to conservation concerns such as increased wear and tear, there are then the considerations of light levels, dust levels, humidity and temperature (particularly in the winter months) and the impact of all of these on the collection. There also needs to be time to carry out maintenance and building works, and checks such as emergency lighting tests. There are then the other considerations of staff time and costs, electricity and heating costs, time for planning and preparing a new season, volunteer numbers and needs, and how we balance all these with the low visitor numbers in winter periods.
Despite the challenges 363 day openings present, National Trust properties are learning from each other, looking at what works and what doesn’t, and together we are moving toward a successful 363 day opening, more engagement and access to visitors to enjoy all properties ‘forever, for everyone.’