‘What do you want the future of Seaton Delaval to be?’ and ‘Will you help?’

These are the words of the National Trust‘s Director-General, Fiona Reynolds on a new kind of campaign by the trust to get the public to decide the future of Seaton Delaval Hall, its gardens, grounds and a large area of countryside in south Northumberland near Blyth.

The Trust intend to purchase the house and its estate to save it for the nation in perpetuity. It is willing to back the purchase with £6m of its own money but needs to raise a further £6m from public appeal, fundraising and public grants.

Romantic and partly-ruined, Seaton Delaval was built between 1718 and 1731 by Sir John Vanbrugh, architect of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, and is widely said be the finest work of the English Baroque and one of the most important historic houses in Britain.

In quite a firm statement, the NT’s Trustees have said that without public support, both in terms of fundraising and the public demonstrating a desire for the acquisition to take place, they will not proceed with the acquisition.

This announcement comes hot on the heels of the announcement yesterday of a new Chairman for the National Trust, Simon Jenkins, well-known as a newspaper editor, journalist, writer and heritage conservation campaigner. There have been no big pronouncements from him about his appointment and the future of the Trust which is a refreshing change.

So is this a one-off for the Trust and similar bodies? Does the public have to decide such things? Or is this a genuine attempt to change the way society deals with the conservation and preservation of the country’s past? The latest news on their website does not mention the Seaton Delaval campaign but then again the press release was only received 23 minutes ago. However, if I have managed to blog it, I should think they could do the same. I do hope their campaign will properly use such methods to communicate and raise its profile. I watch with intense interest.

Conservation and communication

Recently Tom blogged about the prospect of the National Trust’s massive investment into digital technologies, including the web. Electric Acorns is a great new blog started by a an NT employee and devoted to peeling back some of the layers of the great institution in an effort to allow the public and fellow professionals a better insight into all the work the Trust does (see his comment below).

Institutions involved with promoting, undertaking or advising on the conservation of historic environments and artefacts are not great at communicating their work. I often wonder, if they were, whether the tensions between access and preservation could be better ‘managed’ (to use a phrase en vogue) but at the very least, better understood by the wider public, and whether funders and politicians would regard conservation as being a cultural activity of the highest value to society and therefore less willing to withdraw or withold support (see my post on the Textile Conservation Centre’s closure).

Interest in history, the past and the environment has never been more keen than it is now. Neither has it been more easy to have your say in front of a global audience with the internet revolution. Why aren’t more institutions involved with conservation adopting open and honest communication with the public through the web in the form of blogs, web forums, podcasts and more? Matthew of Electric Acorns is taking a step forward for his organisation (I do hope they appreciate it). What is everyone else doing? Here’s a short survey. Continue reading