A panel event at the Hay Festival called ‘The British Country House: Revealing the Bigger Picture’, run in partnership with the National Trust and featuring David Olusoga and Sathnam Sanghera as panellists, was never going to be uncontroversial. However, few would have predicted that the most eyebrow-raising statement would be made by the soft-spoken, reasonable-seeming chairman of the National Trust, Rene Olivieri. After all, since his appointment last year he has made some attempts to prove that he is not a wholesale subscriber to the various controversial agendas espoused by those currently at the top of National Trust management.
Asked, during the question-and-answer session, by an audience member whether visiting Powis Castle would be “a lesser experience if the National Trust conducted a repatriation exercise and returned the South Asian artefacts there to South Asia”, Olivieri flicked his briefing note to the relevant page and announced that “We are in the process of creating our own policy in the National Trust. We will be following the advice that’s been given to all organisations like us by the Museums Association and the Arts Council”.
Listening to this, alarm bells rang instantly. It has been clear that for some time the National Trust has been straying further and further from its original spirit, statutory objects and charitable ethos. What I had not realised, however, was that the National Trust had cast aside its founding Act of Parliament and the Charity Commission to instead take as gospel the divisive pronouncements of the Arts Council and Museums Association. Who made this decision? We members deserve to know why the National Trust is no longer accountable to the institutions which actually govern it, as well as why and how two completely irrelevant bodies were elevated to dictators over the Trust’s decision-making process.
Let us not forget that we have the Arts Council to thank for the enlightened captions underneath the portraits in the Long Gallery at Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire. “They said this pose would highlight my importance and dignity but do you think I just look like I have indigestion?”, reads a particularly crass one under a painting of Henry Vernon, an ancestor of the Lord Vernon who bequeathed the Grade I-listed house to the Trust.
As for the Museums Association (the body responsible for the roll-out of the incredible term “global ethnic majority” in place of “ethnic minority” across many of our cultural institutions), it beggars belief that those currently running the National Trust, a charity which is by no definition a museum, would deem it remotely appropriate to be following its advice.
Further dissection of Oliveri’s words provides an insight into his and his peers’ mindset: he speaks of “organisations like us”, raising the worrying question of which organisations exactly he refers to. The National Trust, the biggest conservation charity in Europe, is surely an institution like no other. One would have thought its chairman would have as strong—perhaps even stronger—a belief in its uniqueness as its millions of members, of which I am one, and its tireless volunteers.
There was also in Olivieri’s seemingly prepared response the conspicuous absence of any indication as to what bright ideas the National Trust management has come up with in relation to the Asian artefacts at Powis Castle, or what its new repatriation policy might look like, apart from that this is an “open question”. Predictably, Sanghera went further: “It [the repatriation of the treasures] would make what is a pretty monotone place more interesting”. Perhaps Olivieri was trying to make sense of Sanghera’s mind-bending assertion, but he offered no assurance that “restitution” was not on the cards.
And this is the problem. Olivieri—on whom, after the welcome departure of Tim Parker, many disillusioned Trust members had pinned their hope—has yet to prove that he is both willing and able to carry out his duty to make sure that the charity is being run in complete accordance with its statutory and charitable objects.
The National Trust is a custodian of this nation’s heritage, not a private owner at liberty to do what it likes with the objects in its care. The clue is in the name.
Zewditu Gebreyohanes is the director of Restore Trust, deputy editor of History Reclaimed and a senior researcher at the Legatum Institute.
An earlier version of this article was published by the Telegraph on 31 May 2023.