‘I have an affinity with the Trust’ – Q&A with John Orna-Ornstein

A vigorous champion of museums, John Orna-Ornstein moved from his role as director of museums at the Arts Council earlier this year to take up a new role at the National Trust as its director of curation and experience. Advisor caught up with him on the sidelines of the AIM Conference last week at Historic Dockyard Chatham to talk about his love of National Trust properties and his plans to reveal more of its stories and better connect it with the museums and heritage sector

What was your relationship with the National Trust before stepping into this role?

As for many people, my relationship with the National Trust began as a child. I grew up in Sussex from the age of eight and was taken along to its properties, and some of them really captured my imagination: the beauty of Cuckmere Haven on the coast and the splendour of Bodiam Castle – those are the places I loved as a child and became part of me.

When I was in my 20s my grandmother died – she was someone who I had been to these National Trust places with – and left me some money. What I did with that, was buy a family life membership for the National Trust, so I am a life member. I used the opportunity to visit a lot of places and so I have an affinity with the Trust. To come into a role that brings together the collections, the places and the visitor experience of the National Trust and to influence it positively was the opportunity of a lifetime, and that’s what it feels like to me.

What does your new role entail?

The new job is director of curation and experience and really that’s about how the Trust can inspire the widest possible range of people with its special places. The National Trust looks after 300 historic houses and 144 accredited museums, as well as huge landscapes and coastlines, so it’s about all of those wonderful assets. But it’s also very much about the visitor experience and the stories we tell about the properties and collections and outdoor spaces – how to make them interesting, accessible and exciting for people.

It’s also the conservation as well. The Trust’s role is to care for these special places for a particular reason: for the public benefit and to delight people. So we’re constantly investing in care and conservation.

Octavia Hill, who was one the founders of the National Trust, talked about it being ‘for the delight of thousands’, which I think is a really nice phrase. So, if the Trust is always thinking about that then its role, and my role, is to absolutely look after and care for these special spaces, collections, museums, historic houses, beautiful landscapes for a reason and for the delight of thousands. So the role is to make people’s lives better and to support them in appreciating these beautiful places and this is also what the Trust is trying to do.

I’m really determined going forward that the National Trust will work effectively in partnership with museums, cultural and arts organisations, and the wider heritage sector

John Orna-Ornstein, director of curation and experience at the National Trust

What areas of the National Trust are you keen to improve?

I think the Trust is doing many things really well but like any heritage organisation or museum it could improve and I’m really interested in what the Trust does with its houses and with its collections. What I know, coming from a museums background, is that collections are the stories of these places so they reflect individual lives, individual passions and individual likes and dislikes as well as individual tastes.

They are the detail of the bigger story and I think there is a lot more the Trust can do to use these collections and tell wonderful animated stories that are relevant, because on the whole people might admire a house or a mill, but actually it’s the human stories that really get them. And they are primarily in the objects and the collection and I think one thing the Trust can do is to continue to think more and more about how it uses its collections. That doesn’t mean being a traditional museum and putting its objects in cases, but finding ways to really tell the stories that come out of individual objects and groups of objects. It also means focusing on particular objects and not having them in the background of houses. Or in other words using them with context and purpose, not as wallpaper.

In what ways do you feel there is more to be said about the historic houses and places cared for by the National Trust?

I think there is a question about what we use these historic houses for and the stories we tell through them. Many of the properties tell the stories of historic families and they tell the story of aristocracy, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries. And I think there is a question of how often you want to keep telling those same stories and actually whether there is a greater diversity of stories the National Trust wants to tell.

There could be new angles, new purposes and new ways of using the houses as well. For example, the Challenging Histories series on Prejudice and Pride revealing LGBTQ stories is a really good example. Next year we will be having a big focus on suffrage and every year there will be a focus on a different angle of programming. That’s not going to be forced on individual houses, or places or collections – it’s more to see where it resonates and really fits. The LGBTQ season this year has really fitted in with particular places, such as Sutton House in London and Kingston Lacey in Somerset. It has made the stories of those places more interesting, more animated and more relevant. Bringing big national themes down to a local level and making them relevant to people in a very natural way is going to be very important going forward.

What would you say is the biggest challenge for the Trust as an organisation?

One of the challenges for the National Trust is that it is almost a sector in itself. It has 144 accredited museums and 300 historic houses, hundreds of other buildings and a third of the coastline. That’s 250,000 hectares of land: it is extraordinary.

So it is easy to focus all of its energy inwards and to keep talking to itself. The danger there could be going around in circles and you tend not to learn from what’s happening elsewhere or best practice. Which means we need the ability to think strategically and I hope to bring a positive change across the Trust. I’m really determined going forward that the National Trust will work effectively in partnership with museums, cultural and arts organisations, and the wider heritage sector. That’s going to be a real priority for me.

How will your background help the future development of the Trust?

I have had the opportunity and privilege of working across the whole museum sector. My background is as a curator at the British Museum and I have always had a passion for public engagement. What I bring as a curator really is that passion; a love of collections, a love of places and a love of people. That was my focus at the British Museum – how to bring those things together. I also worked on programming at the museum, whether it was exhibition programming or community and public programmes. I moved on from the British Museum to the Arts Council England and took a more strategic view of the whole sector. So I was able to stand back and see what the sector needed to support its development. In terms of the National Trust, what that background brings is a mixture of experience and insight as well as an understanding and sympathy for collections and places and a real focus on how to make them relevant as possible and accessible because we are holding them for one purpose: public engagement and the delight of thousands.

At the British Museum and the Arts Council I did a lot of travelling around the country and I will continue to do the same at the National Trust and the key is, it’s not about my ideas it’s about learning what’s happening, seeing what’s happening and experiencing what’s happening on the ground.