Last month the National Trust got a new director-general, when Fiona Reynolds took over from retiring Martin Drury. Mrs Reynolds comes from the Cabinet Office, where she has been director of its Women’s Unit for two years and before that she headed the Council for the Protection of Rural England. Last month she spoke to The Art Newspaper about her plans.
MB: The National Trust is best known for saving country houses, but for the past few decades it has taken on very few houses. Will it ever again step in to save a major historic house under threat?
FR: Saving country houses is the thing for which we are best known, and it has given us an international reputation. We are also admired for our unrivalled knowledge of the collections. The Trust’s role was pioneering in the 1930s, but taking on houses shouldn’t be so necessary today. There are so many more avenues for owners than there were—public funds, tax reliefs, etc.
MB: What are the challenges in presenting your country houses to visitors?
It is important to enable visitors to understand the context of a house and its garden, and the people who lived there—not just the owners, but the servants and wider community who supported the house.
We need to draw out the contextual history of the house, garden and estate. The more you can bring a place to life, the more contemporary relevance it has. If you look at what modern museums and galleries are doing, there is a strong sense of people wanting an interactive experience; they want to learn while they are looking.
At Fountains Abbey, for instance, the Trust has recently restored an 11th-century mill, which worked until 50 or so years ago. Still living in the community is the grandson of the last miller, and we are using his voice on a tape for visitors.
We should show an exciting and modern face to the public. Perhaps the perception is that we are only interested in history, but we are also great champions of modern art. I’ve just seen Elisabeth Frink’s marvellous sculptures at Ickworth and the gallery at Trelissick Garden in Cornwall which shows some of the best up-and-coming Cornish artists.
MB: To what extent has the National Trust been affected by the crisis which has hit farming in the past decade?
It certainly has been a fundamental challenge to the Trust. Many of our properties were in the past only viable because of income from agricultural land, and this has been declining for a very long time. But during the same period we have developed more of an understanding that the land is a valuable resource, which needs to be protected. We have tapped new sources of income, such as letting out country cottages, shops and cafés, etc—substituting one form of income for another.
Of course, the whole farming community is suffering very seriously. But the Trust can show leadership, perhaps in the way we did with historic houses seventy years ago, investing in finding long-term solutions.
MB: Does the National Trust need to raise its profile?
If the Trust has a problem today, it is the label which people stick on it, which implies it is middle class. My task is to make sure the Trust is telling its own story as clearly as it can. It is wrong to suggest that the heritage has no bearing on our future, and as a nation we are absolutely embedded in our past.
MB: On a personal note, how do you think you will find working at the National Trust compared with the Cabinet Office?
Both are substantial bureaucracies. In the Cabinet Office you feel you are part of the whole Whitehall machine. The Trust is a big bureaucracy, although not as large. But what is different is the passion that people feel in the Trust; it’s a “can do” attitude.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '"I love the passion here"'