Keeping it real
Octavia Hill was a social reformer in the last 1800′s early 1900′s, her main concern was the welfare of the inhabitants of cities. She was the first person to use the term “green belt” and she had great campaigns that we would be proud to see today, one being “Bring beauty home to the poor” aimed at bringing art, books, music and open spaces into the lives of the urban poor. We may be a couple of centuries on but those messages have never been more relevant.
Octavia was one of the founders of the National Trust in 1895 and another great tag line “forever for everyone”. There is no doubt that the National Trust is a fine legacy; with all organisations that have stood this testament to time though the challenge is relevance – are you still holding true to the values in a way that affects the people you were trying to reach? 90% of us live in towns and cities so how is the National Trust doing there? What would Octavia think if she was alive today?
I had the pleasure of being able to sit in on a NTCities Sounding Board session to see for myself. From the off the agenda was creative, using different tools and techniques designed to inspire a different response and way of thinking from the team. The PechaKucha 20×20 start gave me a list of places I wanted to visit as long as my arm, here are some for you to check out:
Of course this wasn’t about giving me some cool paces to go, it was about people sharing spaces, experiences they had which had connected people who lived in towns and cities with art, books, music and open spaces. This would have made Octavias heart sing but no-one was complacent. These examples were there to inspire the next generation of projects and to share some hard messages; the National Trust wants to increase its membership (currently 4m, target 5m) and wants everyone to feel like a member. Not easy. Why? because those members want something different and making sure your offer is relevant to a diverse group isn’t easy.
How do you give with one hand and make sure you’re not taking it away with another? At the moment the National Trust is probably best known for its properties. If you think about them your mind will probably conjure up a grand old house set in magnificent gardens, with a nice coffee shop…am I right? You might know that they own some houses that belonged to people of significance e.g. John Lennon and Paul McCartney? What happens if you are trying to attract a new population of people in their own space and you have no property there? You have to go “off property”.
Going off property isn’t a new concept for the National Trust, they do it all the time in areas like the Lake District but doing it in a City, what would that look like? Well they are experimenting working with communities that may not necessarily see the value of joining the National Trust and asking them why not? Its a fantastic initiative that holds great promise for change but also will underpin the future of the National Trust if they can get it right and connect it to a sustainable business model.
To inspire further they heard from 3 external speakers; Paul Bramhill from Green Space, Lucy & Matt from Phantom Productions and my personal favourite Henrietta Hine from the Courtauld Institute. Henrietta is the Head of Public Programmes at the Institute and she shared her views and experiences of creating change in a position of this nature i.e. one that has values that are deep routed in “art history for all” and a supporter base that “like what they know and know what they like”. She started off with some amazing (but not surprising) stats:
- Art history isn’t taught in 98% of state schools
- 87% of all school visits to museums are by primary schools
The statement that I loved the most was “museums are a unique learning environment, you don’t have to dumb down an offer to make it accessible”. I nearly ran up and kissed her, I thought that people had stopped believing this. She went on to explain the programmes that the Institute have put together, Animating Art History was her focus. Take a look at the link you will be amazed by the work produced; contemporary interpretations of historic art.
In order to ensure that we offer a genuinely useful and unique learning experience we should avoid compromise in terms of both art practice and academic knowledge and genuinely share what we know. Henrietta Hine, Courtauld Institute.
It was clear to me that in trying to maintain relevance you have to break down the perception of difference first. If you want it to be more that just an initiative (a burst of flame) you have to have strategic intent to deliver a sustainable business model from the start. The challenge the National Trust have is in the latter; the perception of difference is yet to be broken down and many of the NTCities projects are flying under the radar, unconnected and without strategic intent. I understand why this is happening but hope that enduring relevance of Octavia Hill shines through, we need many more to follow in her footsteps.
The principle of modern life in free countries, that we are not directed from above like mere tools, but have to think out what it is best to do each in his own sphere. Octavia Hill, Letter to fellow workers.