Who can fill the National Trust vacancy?
Athena Cultural Crusader
‘What the Trust needs is not a manager, but a leader of vision
THE wonder of the National Trust is the improbable variety of its responsibilities: nature reserves, working watermills, ancient woodland, farmland and war memorials, not to mention the country houses, their contents and their gardens. A lifetime is barely enough to visit these holdings in their entirety, let alone to understand the bewildering complexity of managing them.
Now that the Trust is looking to replace its Director General, Dame Helen Ghosh, who has been in the post for only five years, Athena wonders who should succeed her (Town & Country, July 26).
The successful candidate will need to manage a large and complex organisation, as well as the inherent tensions between the centre, the regions and the individual properties. It’s just one aspect of this difficult chemistry that the Trust ought to be the standard bearer for local distinctiveness, yet needs a centralised team of specialists and curators to manage its responsibilities to a high standard. Quite apart from the staff, the Trust is served by no fewer than 60,000 volunteers, who need motivation. Alienate them at your peril.
No less critical, there is—in business speak—the product. It’s far from clear what that is. Feelings of well-being on the part of members and visitors? Preservation of fragile places perhaps? Education? Heritage? Healthfulness? Embodiment of national identity? The Trust generates a visceral loyalty and has nearly five million members, but that passionate commitment also presents a challenge, as each member sees the world differently.
Overseeing all this will take interest, competence, conviction, enthusiasm, wis- dom and experience, not to mention a human touch and good media skills— these days, the commentariat is unforgiving. In short, it’s hard to imagine that any one person could be equal to this Herculean task. However, the apparent impossibility of the job perhaps suggests the way forward.
What the Trust needs at this juncture is not a manager—in a business sense, it seems efficiently, even ruthlessly at times, run at present—but a leader of vision. Only such a person can rise above the immediate complexities of the organisation and address the big questions that lie at the roots of the Trust’s role and purpose (as well as many of its present difficulties).
Is the Trust fundamentally a membership organisation, a public body or a social service? To what extent should it follow the market or plough an ideological furrow? Is its role to educate or entertain? What is the Trust’s role post-brexit? To what extent should it flex its muscles and campaign politically?
Appointing an individual who can address such questions will necessarily require a leap of faith, but this glorious, amorphous institution needs a dynamic character at its head if it’s to avoid disappearing from view beneath the weight of its own variousness.