Simon Skinner: Looking after the past needs to have a future

Times change and the National Trust must too, writes Simon Skinner

The Dymock's Building in Bo'ness, one of many buildings restored with the help of the National Trust for Scotland. Picture: Callum Bennetts
The Dymock's Building in Bo'ness, one of many buildings restored with the help of the National Trust for Scotland. Picture: Callum Bennetts

If recent events remind us of anything it is that certainties sometimes don’t remain certain and change can be fraught. This is no less true of heritage as it is of politics.

Once upon a time, it was taken as read that the charity I lead, the National Trust for Scotland, would never stop acquiring historic buildings and precious landscapes for the nation, and that the nation would respond by supporting the Trust in huge numbers as members and visitors.

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As late as the 1990s, being able to visit a grand house or walk unrestricted across outstanding countryside was still a novelty. That’s when the Trust’s visitor numbers peaked and the intrinsic value of heritage was unquestioned.

Since then some harsh realities have come into play.

Although our membership has gone past 350,000, our overall visitor numbers are down – as much as a quarter of a million in ten years – that’s important because the conservation of some of Scotland’s most historically and ecologically important places depends as much on commercial income from visitors as it does on membership fees.

Why is this is happening? One obvious factor is the economy.

The other factors are time and expectations. What was once a novelty is now commonplace. Once off-limits countryside is now subject to a “right to roam” and this also means that many people do not see the need to support the charity that has provided the car parks and footpaths they use.

Where visitors were once happy to soak up the ambience of an ancient site with a guidebook in hand, expectations fed by the need to be “entertained” and digital technology that is more dazzling than reality means we have new generations who will never settle for this.

The only conclusion is that the Trust has to change. That is why we propose a comprehensive overhaul of our charity.

It’s natural and completely justified to focus on the implications this has for our staff. We’ve undertaken to ensure more accountability and specialist support at property level, and this means moving people out of our HQ and changing skillsets.

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We are creating 68 new posts but 147 jobs will be at risk in some way, either through changes to roles, relocation or because they don’t fit with our future priorities. This is undoubtedly difficult and a bitter situation for some.

It’s been suggested we are cynically turning away from conservation to managing heritage as money-making themed attractions. This is not true.

Firstly, we want to ensure that our conservation specialists are embedded at the very heart of the Trust alongside our properties and that no artificial organisational boundaries get in the way.

Secondly, we have to face up to the fact that conservation costs money. If we want to fund conservation, and we most certainly do, we need to encourage and persuade people to give us their support – and the best way we can do that is by getting more visitors to our properties.

Only if people go to our properties can they learn why they are so significant and understand the stories they tell us. We need to offer something that will entice them to visit in the first place – and that thing is enjoyment.

In the next three years we’ll put £17 million into improving visitor experiences at some of our key properties. This isn’t solely dependent on efficiencies but for the most part is available from existing sources, in part by reallocating internal funds.

At the heart of improved visitor experiences will be our core purposes of Access, Education and Enjoyment – these are the reasons why we conserve these places in the first place.

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We are first and foremost a conservation charity – but we can only ensure the wellbeing of our heritage if we can convince new generations to cherish and support it.

• Simon Skinner is chief executive of the National Trust for Scotland