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The National Trust and its role in the Heritage Industry

Part 2 Dissertation 2003
Zoe Skelding
University of Westminster | UK
The idea of preserving places of historic interest and natural beauty for the nation is an intriguing concept. The National Trust's selection and presentation process have influenced attitudes towards buildings of historic and architectural interest. Heritage is no longer that which is inherited. It is now associated with identity and the construction of a nation. The Trust's increasing dominance has created a unique interpretation of heritage. This study explores intentions, functions and working methods of the Trust and other diverse forms of building conservation. This provides a contextual position to reassess the function of the National Trust in a modern context.

Initially the problems encountered defining heritage are investigated, documenting its growth parallel to that of the National Trust. An assessment of the selection procedure, the criteria applied by the Trust to plan acquisitions, is used to give a clearer definition of heritage than the Trust itself publishes. The study explores the effects presentation can have on attitudes to historic buildings and scrutinises the exclusion of some types of architecture from heritage. An investigation into the alternatives to the Trust questions whether their system of preservation is relevant in the context of buildings currently needing conservation.

The National Trust undoubtedly has a future role given its popularity and history of reinvention. The Trust uses the terminology of threat and this act of salvation constitutes an important aspect of heritage. Donation of money enables inclusion in a particular past, forming a perceived ownership. Heritage buildings refer to a constructed English past: modern architecture in its international style does not evoke the necessary nostalgia. The definition of a nation is, like heritage, determined through exclusion. Originally an oligarchic group, the National Trust is today democratic. Intellectuals discount heritage, separating themselves from the masses; history is kept for the appreciation of a few. The lack of critique within the Trust is evident in the hagiographic presentation of properties. The National Trust must take responsibility for defining qualities of significance, since the selection and acquisition procedure is the only definition of heritage available.

Zoe Skelding

This is an extremely good dissertation. It is well planned, clearly written and its sources are always put to good effect. Most impressive of all is its treatment of specific examples. Often they are interesting in their own right; they further the argument within the dissertation and they touch on questions that extend beyond the scope of the dissertation. One instance of this is the clever juxtaposition of the National Trust's purchase of Tyntesfield and its belated attempt to preserve Bishopsgate Goodsyard and thus stop the extension of the East London line. These are interesting enough in themselves and they raise serious doubts as to the National Trust's acquisition policies and what criteria they bring to bear. In addition however these raise more general social and political issues which are lightly touched on and leave the reader to ponder. This multi-layering gives cohesion to the dissertation by providing connections between apparently disparate issues. The bulk of the dissertation is a rather acerbic critique of the National Trust made sharper by a discussion of the merits of buildings which did not attract the Trust's support and also some that had been preserved by change of use outside the heritage industry. Even so, the dissertation is surprisingly even-handed and looks to reform rather than condemnation.

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