John Orna-Ornstein, the National Trust’s new director of curation and experience, and I are sitting eating a piece of Sissinghurst summer sponge at the former home of Vita Sackville-West. Outside, rain falls steadily on the dahlias of the famous garden. It could be a metaphor for the Trust: beyond the tea room, storms of controversy keep blowing up.
In August, there was an outcry over the insistence that front-of-house volunteers at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk wear rainbow lanyards and badges, as part of the Trust’s year long LGBTQ-themed Prejudice and Pride season, to celebrate the last lord of the manor, Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, who was gay. This was compounded by the response of some of Ketton-Cremer’s relatives, who argued that the Trust “outed” a man who was notoriously private.
Last month, a memorial at Kingston Lacy in Dorset, Exile, featuring 51 ropes in recognition of the 51 men in Britain hanged for their homosexuality, was described by one newspaper as a “politically correct stunt”. More generally, there has been a perception of the Trust promoting social causes and accessibility over architecture and collections: dumbing down, in short. This has happened under the reign of Dame Helen Ghosh, who will step down as director general in 2018 after six years.
Into the fray steps Orna-Ornstein, 45, who has been appointed, in a specially created new post, to take charge of the way its houses and collections are presented. He comes from the Arts Council, where he was director of museums. He accepts that there have been problems. “We were wrong about that,” he says on the LGBTQ lanyards controversy, agreeing that the wearing of the ribbons should have been a matter of personal choice. However, he’d happily wear a rainbow lanyard himself. “It’s about saying to the LGBTQ community, ‘you’re welcome here’.”
Not everyone feels welcome at the National Trust. The journalist Max Hastings recently announced that he has cancelled his membership because of an “obsessively politically correct agenda”, while Andrew Bridgen, the Tory MP, described the Exile memorial as “totally inappropriate”.
Yet Orna-Ornstein’s response is robust. “I absolutely don’t want to alienate any visitor or member,” he says. “But there’s nothing politically correct about the Prejudice and Pride season. It’s simply telling interesting and relevant stories of some of our most important places and collections.
“Nor can I think of a more appropriate display at Kingston Lacy,” he continues. “The house and collections take their present form precisely because of the exile of its owner, William John Bankes, fleeing the country because he feared for his life because of his sexuality. We want our houses to be more than backgrounds to a pleasant picnic.”
He is equally defensive over “the outing” of Ketton-Cremer. “Doesn’t [the criticism] suggest there’s something wrong with being gay?”, he replies. “At Felbrigg Hall we tell a positive story about his life and his influence. His sexuality is part of that.”
Telling stories is very important to Orna-Ornstein. He was previously at the British Museum for 15 years and worked on Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, which used tiny artefacts to spin a much larger narrative.
Orna-Ornstein believes that the Trust should have similar ambition. He wants to “engage” the biggest possible audience with “the wonderful collections that we hold”.
“The Trust… hasn’t tended to think nationally or internationally,” he says. He wants it to up its game. “We can tell big stories.” He argues that a new show at Sissinghurst, Speak Its Name!, which uses objects from Sackville West’s study to compare her open marriage to Harold Nicolson with the lives of their arty, sexually non-conforming contemporaries, does just that.
What about the bigger, more persistent argument that the Trust is dumbing down? There was wide condemnation of a “temporary experiment” at Ickworth House in Suffolk in 2015, in which antique furniture was replaced with bean bags. Around the same time, Ghosh was roundly criticised for declaring some National Trust properties contained too much “stuff”. The general contention is that now there is less emphasis on preserving the character of country houses as works of art.
“I don’t quite understand the accusation,” says Orna-Ornstein diplomatically – before promptly detailing the things he will do to banish that perception. One of his first moves has been to appoint 25 new curators – a welcome move, given that the Trust’s collections rival those of the National Gallery and V&A put together.
Still, the new curators have a challenge on their hands. The houses aren’t the big attraction they once were. Fewer people make repeat visits. Unlike gardens, they don’t much change season by season. And one must admit it: some are quite dull. Too little is done to distinguish important pieces from mediocre ones. It can be quite easy, as Orna-Ornstein puts it, “to walk past a Titian and not know what you’re seeing”.
Expect this to change. “We need to use collections better”, he admits. It’s all about doing things to make pieces “leap off the wall”. He cites good examples as the Rembrandt at Buckland Abbey and the Harrison Clock at Nostell Priory – “both were displayed in isolation in a way that made visitors stop and stare”.
Sometimes, he says, “it’s as simple as turning a piece of furniture around for a while, so that we can see how it’s made. Sometimes it’s about changing the lighting, as with Titian’s wonderful Portrait of a Man at Ickworth.”
Orna-Ornstein also has radical plans to move collections around – not only within a house, but on a much larger scale from across the Trust’s properties, to create new temporary displays and exhibitions. “Why not pull all the Spanish Old Masters together – or the silver, or Chippendale?
“We must do more to make our places excellent,” he continues. “The standard of what we do has to be very high, well researched, completely credible. If that’s not the case, we’re doing the wrong thing.”
Despite all the controversies, the Trust is clearly doing some things right. It now has nearly five million members – up by one million during the five years that Ghosh has been director general. Yet only last week, it announced it was scrapping the response on surveys which asked whether visitors they found their visit “very enjoyable”, after declining numbers of people said yes.
“We’ve changed the metrics to understand better what our visitors are telling us – separating out basic service standards from engagement,” argues Orna-Ornstein. “We know that people value their membership – more people are becoming members, and individual members are visiting more often. But we do think there are things we can do to improve visits, from strong programming to some of the ‘basics’, like good catering and high standards of presentation. We’re working on them all.”
Orna-Ornstein may only have worked for the Trust for a few months but no one could hold it more closely to his heart. When still in his twenties, he was left £1,000 by a grandmother. While there were plenty of things that a young man could have spent this on, he used it to buy a lifetime subscription to the National Trust.
He now lives in Hertfordshire, and his favourite property is Wimpole Hall. “Over the years, I’ve tried to take the children to museums and galleries, with different amounts of resistance. Then at the age of 19 my daughter said: ‘Dad, for my birthday can we go to Wimpole Hall?’ She’s now 21, and the other day, as we went up the drive, said, ‘You know, this is our place, isn’t it?’. It should be like that for everyone. For the Trust is a family, the biggest in Britain. We’ve got to treasure that.”
Speak Its Name! is at Sissinghurst until October 29. Details: 01580 710701; nationaltrust.org.uk