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Vision for National Trust: the Herts-based curator expanding its appeal

PUBLISHED: 12:42 09 January 2018

The dome in the Yellow Drawing Room at Wimpole Hall. The room was created by John Soane in 1793 (photo: National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel)

The dome in the Yellow Drawing Room at Wimpole Hall. The room was created by John Soane in 1793 (photo: National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel)

©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Widening the appeal of the National Trust’s varied portfolio is the mission for Hitchin’s John Orna-Ornstein. Gillian Thornton met up with him at one of the trust’s properties

When John Orna-Ornstein was in his 20s, a £1,000 legacy from his grandmother put a range of tempting purchases within reach. But rather than splash out on short-term pleasures like clothes or a Caribbean holiday, John made an investment which guaranteed him decades of enjoyment – life membership of the National Trust.

Now with a 21 and 17-year-old of his own, that investment has delivered the jackpot. After creative roles at the British Museum and The Arts Council, last summer John was appointed director of curation and experience at the National Trust, a new role which covers everything from conservation and collections to buildings, archaeology and visitor experience.

‘My biggest challenges are to come up with ways to engage more fully with the many different people who visit our properties, and to attract new visitors who have never thought of visiting a National Trust property,’ explains John over coffee in the visitor centre at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire.

As daily commutes go, this popular National Trust house and garden are one of the easiest journeys from his Hitchin home. John’s office base is NT HQ in Swindon, but his remit is national and any one week can see him travelling the length and breadth of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Visitors enjoying the Christmas Lights spectacular at Anglesey Abbey on the Herts-Cambs border (photo: National Trust Images, John Mill) Visitors enjoying the Christmas Lights spectacular at Anglesey Abbey on the Herts-Cambs border (photo: National Trust Images, John Mill)

He grew up in Sussex and has fond memories of family outings to imposing National Trust properties (or National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty to give it it’s full name) like Petworth House and to areas of countryside like the Seven Sisters.

‘My parents were long-term trust members and brought us up to appreciate our history and heritage, though if I’m honest, I most enjoyed the outdoor spaces where we could run around! But I grew to love the collections too. I clearly remember my first trip to the British Museum and looking up at those huge sculptures. Fifteen years later, I ended up working there.’

So John is particularly happy to report that the biggest growth in National Trust membership last year was families. Membership has just hit the five million mark and more individuals now belong to a family group than any other sector. The trust welcomes some 25 million paying customers a year, and last August was the busiest month on record with four million paid visits. On top of that, there are millions more who roam freely over trust-owned countryside.

‘The number of paying visitors is slightly up, but membership figures have grown significantly which shows that people really do care about the National Trust and what it stands for,’ John says.

Autumn in the woods on the Ashridge Estate (photo: National Trust Images/Michael Caldwell) Autumn in the woods on the Ashridge Estate (photo: National Trust Images/Michael Caldwell)

Last year the organisation invested £137m in the conservation of its houses and natural environment.

John points out that there has been a sharp rise in competition for visitors in recent years. ‘The last decade has seen a sudden growth across the heritage and museums sector, particularly with independent attractions, although it has been challenging for those that are publicly funded. But competition keeps us on our toes. People’s expectations grow every year, even down to the quality of the coffee and cake, so we have to make sure we deliver at more than 350 properties.’

Being relevant to today’s cultural and political landscape is one way the trust is reaching out to visitors. Some members were unhappy this year over the way the trust explored the history of the LGBTQ community at some of its properties (it argued that many of its properties were home to, and shaped by, people who challenged conventional ideas of gender and sexuality). In 2018 the trust celebrates the centenary of women’s suffrage.

‘History is largely told through the male lens, but there have been some remarkable women across the centuries such as Bess of Hardwick at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, and author Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst in Kent. Dozens of our properties will be highlighting stories of the influential women who lived there.’

John Orna-Ornstein John Orna-Ornstein

Presenting those stories – and indeed properties in general – is high on John’s agenda. Despite coming from a museums background, he has no wish to turn National Trust houses into museums. Far from it. But at the same time, he feels there are better ways to present its rich collections.

‘Changing exhibitions bring people back to a house, and return visits are really important to us,’ he explains. ‘Mottisfont in Hampshire has its own exhibition gallery, a link to the former owners who were patrons of the arts, but not every house has that facility, so we have to make sure exhibitions are relevant and reflect the spirit of the individual property.’

This may entail borrowing objects from other properties to create themed exhibitions but also new ways of displaying objects in a house.

‘Sometimes there is so much to see that it’s easy to miss something particularly valuable or unusual. But often you only need use spot lighting or move furniture around to make something more visible.’

Reflection of the Bridgewater Monument at Ashbridge Estate (photo: National Trust Images/John Miller) Reflection of the Bridgewater Monument at Ashbridge Estate (photo: National Trust Images/John Miller)

His home county is, he admits, something of a National Trust desert, although Shaw’s Corner at Ayot St Lawrence and the beech woods of Ashridge are personal favourites. With a higher-than-average ratio of wealthy landowners across the centuries, large properties in Hertfordshire have remained in private hands. But other trust gems lie within easy reach of the county.

‘Our family has always loved Wimpole Hall on the Herts-Cambridgeshire border,’ says John, who lived in St Albans and Knebworth before settling in Hitchin. 
‘We were there recently for their 1940s weekend which was huge fun and very busy. This of course presents us with another challenge – managing visitor numbers at peak times.

‘When I was young, houses closed for the winter, but now we’re moving towards year-round opening at many properties, which of course gives members even better value for money. But we live in an age of experience culture, so we want to create activities that will tempt visitors to return and also reach out to new sectors of the population.’

And while family experiences will be high on the agenda, John insists the National Trust will not be forgetting its older, more traditional members either. A plan to install an all-weather track at Wimpole, for instance, will make visiting easier not just for families with buggies, but also for people in wheelchairs.

Flying model airplanes in the Chilterns on the edge of Herts - one of John's favourite places to go walking (photo: National Trust Images/John Millar) Flying model airplanes in the Chilterns on the edge of Herts - one of John's favourite places to go walking (photo: National Trust Images/John Millar)

‘This new role brings together all the things I am passionate about,’ John concludes as another meeting looms in his busy diary. ‘I’ve had so much value myself from museums, heritage and the arts, now I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to enhance other people’s lives in the same way.’

For more information on the National Trust and its properties, visit nationaltrust.org

The cottage garden of Shaw's Corner. George Bernard Shaw's plays are perfomed in the grounds in summer (photo: National Trust Images/Paul Watson) The cottage garden of Shaw's Corner. George Bernard Shaw's plays are perfomed in the grounds in summer (photo: National Trust Images/Paul Watson)

John’s Herts favourites

Walks

We walk Daisy, our cockerpoo, in the fields around Charlton near Hitchin and at Hitch Wood, an open-access wood in the countryside near Preston. Sharpenhoe Clappers is another favourite at the end of the Chilterns – one of nine sites that the trust acquired in the 1930s with money left to us by Mr W A Robertson. His two brothers were killed in the First World War and he wanted us to buy land in beautiful areas of countryside outside London that people could enjoy in memory of soldiers lost in the war. A staggering 50,000 hectares have been left to the country in this way, which together make up the world’s greatest war memorial.

The dining room at Shaw's Corner. The Edwardian villa was home to playwright Bernard Shaw for 44 years from 1906 (photo: National Trust Images/Paul Watson) The dining room at Shaw's Corner. The Edwardian villa was home to playwright Bernard Shaw for 44 years from 1906 (photo: National Trust Images/Paul Watson)

Towns

I love the bustle and character of Hitchin. It’s a lively and historic market town and has so many independent shops and cafes, which is unusual nowadays. We look out onto some lovely Victorian and Edwardian houses too, though sadly don’t live in one ourselves!

If we have visitors from outside the area, we take them to St Albans for the abbey, the old streets, and Roman remains. The new museum project promises to be really exciting too. I lived in Finchley for four years as a child and my parents would take us to St Albans for a day out.

Central block of the south front of Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire. The 17th century house by Sir Thomas Chicheley was refaced in a Palladian style by Henry Flitcroft in 1742 (photo: National Trust Images/Andrew Butler) Central block of the south front of Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire. The 17th century house by Sir Thomas Chicheley was refaced in a Palladian style by Henry Flitcroft in 1742 (photo: National Trust Images/Andrew Butler)

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