National Trust opens ‘Disney Debate’

National Trust members attending this weekend’s AGM may be in for a lively discussion when Country Life’s Architectural Editor John Goodall and Lucy Worsley, chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, debate the subject ‘Bringing Houses to Life’.

This follows the ding-dong argument across the media this month between Trust chairman Simon Jenkins and design guru Stephen Bayley, who has criticised the Trust for allowing more visitor interaction-removing ropes, lighting fires and encouraging visitors to play pianos and read books-and giving curators creative power to bring out their property’s ‘story’.

Mr Bayley calls this ‘Disney-fication’ and a ‘Downton Abbey view of architecture’. He says: ‘If you need to add life to a great building, it’s because heavy-handed conservation robbed it of life in the first place.’ Mr Jenkins replies: ‘We can learn a lot from Disney.

If it means making properties more profitable, I am unrepentant. Some of them were pretty dead. We’re trying to achieve a situation where the house is no longer a museum.’

Public reaction has been mixed. Many visitors, especially parents, are clearly enjoying the atmospheric additions. One writes online: ‘I wish I’d had the choice between “don’t touch” and interactive when I was a child.’ Sir Roy Strong, former director of the V&A, comments:

‘I think I come down on Simon Jenkins’s side. Everything has to change. Life moves on.’ Others, including some volunteers, say the Trust is drifting away from its academic core of preserving houses. Clive Aslet, Country Life’s Editor-at-Large, comments: ‘The Trust shouldn’t think of itself as only a visitor attraction.

Traditionally, it combined opening houses with the highest standards of research. Alas, its present priorities are seen in its website, which provides barely any historical information. This is appalling. Let them jazz up the visitor experience if they want to, but scholarly understanding has got to come first.’

Members will vote on a resolution proposing that volunteers should have greater representation on the Trust’s Council. Another resolution proposes increasing the ratio of members (currently 0.25% or about 9,500 members) needed to call an EGM.

The Trust, whose huge membership of 3.8 million is about three times that of the RSPB and some 50 times that of the Labour Party, points out that the last one, called in 1994, cost £600,000 to run; it proposes raising it to 1% of members-about 38,000 people.

The AGM is at STEAM, the Museum of the Great Western Railway, in Swindon, Wiltshire, on October 30 (