The Historic Libraries Forum is extremely concerned to hear of recent proposals at the National Trust to make sweeping redundancies in its teams of specialist and lead curators across all regions. This will see the loss of the majority of its National Specialists (for furniture, pictures and sculpture, decorative arts, textiles, and photography), including the Libraries Curator Tim Pye and the 1.2fte post of Assistant Libraries Curator. These specialised roles will be replaced with ‘Senior National Curators’ who will be responsible for a wide variety of material objects which fall within their period of interest (16th century, 17th century, 18th century, and 19th-21st century). More broadly, there will be a general move away from specialist knowledge, focussing instead on providing a dynamic visitor experience, one which – surely – must be underpinned by the knowledge and interpretation provided by specialists.
The Trust’s collection of books and manuscripts, numbering some 600,000 volumes housed across 180 sites, is one of international significance which allows us to better understand the lives of their owners. The spectrum of social history which can be seen in the Trust’s properties (from grand stately homes like Blickling in Norfolk to humble farmhouses like Townend in Cumbria) is echoed in the Trust’s books: vast 18th-century Italian plate books reveal tales of Grand Tours and connoisseurship, whilst devotional books read by family servants hint at unexpected links between gentry and their staff. Specialist staff are key if these stories are to be (1) discovered and understood, and (2) presented to the public in the wider context of each property. Great work has been done in recent years to bring books to the fore in many Trust properties, both internally (cataloguing, exhibition and conservation) and externally (through collaborative PhD projects and the welcoming of researchers), allowing a new appreciation of the place of books in our national life over the centuries. The loss of these specialist posts threatens to wipe out that progress.
We realise that, like many heritage institutions, the National Trust finds itself in a worrying financial position. Difficult decisions must be made if it is to continue its most basic work of sustaining the physical landscapes and buildings under its care for future generations. At the same time it must be recognised that expert knowledge has to be central to its work, and that no single curator – however experienced – can have expert levels of knowledge about art history, furniture, textiles and books alike. Without staff who have the necessary expertise to interpret and care for the Trust’s diverse collections, it puts itself in the position of seeming to care little for its own cultural legacy.
Anyone who shares our concerns is encouraged to write to the following individuals at the National Trust:
John.Orna-Ornstein@nationaltrust.org.uk (Director of Culture & Engagement)
tarnya.Cooper@nationaltrust.org.uk (Curatorial & Collections Director)