These are obviously my own views about the recent Felbrigg debacle, NOT those of the National Trust.
As everyone knows, the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales is being marked by many huge heritage institutions, including the British Museum, Tate Modern/Britain, Historic Royal Palaces, V&A etc. It seems though that the only institution to be consistently ruffling the feathers of homophobic right wing rag commentariat is the National Trust.
When the 2017 Prejudice and Pride programme was announced at the end of last year, Breitbart fascist Delingpole claimed the ‘once great’ institution had been sullied by the inclusion of LGBTQ histories, and name dropped my beloved Sutton House as being his former favourite property, now hosting the ‘nonsensical’ Sutton House Queered programme.
I’m currently at my family home, and I’m ashamed to say my dad buys and reads the Daily Mail. Today, amidst the political chaos in our country, the Daily Mail deemed the National Trust front page material. He made a joke about hiding it from me. He mistakenly thinks that my distaste for the Daily Mail in contrast to his reverence for it is amusing.
I know very well that the Daily Mail is reactionary, and barely based on truth. We all do. But earlier in the year when the rag bemoaned with outrage that the National Trust had CANCELLED EASTER, I could only roll my eyes, as the day before I had helped to hang a huge canvas banner emblazoned with the word Easter in front of a National Trust property. It was amusing because it was laughably reactionary, and also, very easily demonstrably not true. It also created the largest number of visits for the Easter weekend that Sutton House had ever seen.
Today’s headline reads MUTINY IN THE NATIONAL TRUST, and is in response to volunteers from Felbrigg in Norfolk who refused to wear Prejudice and Pride badges. In response to their refusal, the Trust asked them to move away from public-facing duties for the duration of the programme. Firstly, let’s just unpick the headline. 10 ‘furious’ volunteers out of a body of over 70,000 volunteers across the National Trust (ie 0.01%) is emphatically not a mutiny. It’s a mere drop in the ocean.
When the Prejudice and Pride programme began, the Trust approached it very carefully, working with and consulting many experts (including myself), such as Stonewall, curator of Queering the Museum and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Matt Smith and Leader of the Leicester University School of Museum Studies, Richard Sandell. We worked together on a series of training days to discuss how various inevitable challenges could be met. Volunteers were always a great consideration. The Trust is so privileged that so many people devote their time, skills and energy to volunteering there, but sometimes volunteers can be difficult- anyone working in museums and heritage can tell you that much. I visited Seaton Deleval in Northumberland once and I had to walk away from an elderly volunteer who was using sexist language to refer to a Mary Eleanor Bowes portrait, when he noticed her portrait had caught my eye. Not everyone thinks LGBTQ history should be uncovered, they prefer that it should continue to be hidden, like a shameful dirty secret, and unfortunately, out of 70,000 volunteers, it’s inevitable that some of those would share that view.
The news that the National Trust had stood firm on this ruling that volunteers must wear lanyards or badges reflecting the programme at the house was like music to my ears. Like a lot of large charities and organisations, the Trust has a set of values and behaviours that all staff and volunteers must abide by. These range from being respectful to people, to being willing to try new things, but also that we be advocates and ambassadors for the National Trust.
So often, as with many of my own visits to National Trust properties, the only people you will encounter as a visitor is a volunteer. It makes perfect sense then, that they be ‘on message’, for whatever is going on in the property at that time.
Pam Meecham, my PhD supervisor, has written about the Hello Sailor exhibition at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, and noted how some of the museum staff wanted nothing to do with the exhibition, and were vocal in their disapproval of it. It shouldn’t be behaviour that is tolerated from staff, and therefore should not be tolerated by volunteers. The difference is, volunteers are not contractually bound to sharing the values of the Trust, so the alternative, if they are not prepared to do so, is to take their skills elsewhere, and use their time where their values are in line with the organisation (the daily mail perhaps?). I think it’s very generous for the Trust’s stance to be to allow them to move their duties away from front of house rather than just showing them the door.
I obviously feel very strongly about criticisms about the Trust’s LGBTQ engagement, and take a lot of it very personally given my role in laying the foundations for it, and in building the programme this year (especially since I know that people like my parents are consuming the sort venom that is being written about it). It hasn’t always been easy, both from inside and outside the Trust, but reading that they were taking such a bold stance made me feel really valued, and genuinely moved by the Trust’s devotion to these important histories, and to making their properties more inviting and welcoming to LGBTQ communities.
I’m disheartened to see they have reneged this bold stance in the face of criticism from the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. They haven’t yielded to the ‘fury’ of volunteers, they’ve yielded to homophobia/transphobia. And if you change your course in response to hatred and ignorance, you give weight and merit to that hatred and ignorance, and say that those who voiced it are in the right. This is really disappointing, it feels like one step forward and too steps back and it’s exhausting.
The Daily Mail is the enemy of many people and many things and carries a lot of power given its colossal readership. But if you continue to worry about what the Daily Mail is going to say about every thing you do, and if you cave in to bullying from thick right wingers, you’ll never get anything done. The future members and visitors of the National Trust are not old white Daily Mail readers, so we really, really need to stop bending to the every wishes of old, white Daily Mail readers.
I feature on episode three of the National Trust’s Prejudice and Pride podcast, speaking with Dr Gus Casely-Hayford and Clare Balding about hidden queer histories. The whole series is great, written by Museum of Transology’s E-J Scott, check them out here.