In every room there is a volunteer, willing to engage in conversation, to tell you important facts and little stories about the place and its former inhabitants. There are trails and charming activities for the kids that keep them busy while we marvel at history. And there’s always a cafe serving locally made food (anyone for soup made with ingredients from the walled garden?).
The National Trust is one of my favourite brands, because it has a palpable spirit, a soul. You can feel the volunteers enjoy what they do. Many of them visit each other’s properties and exchange stories as they do. The spirit can be felt in news stories, in the way the Trust keeps its sites interesting through exhibitions and installations, by linking their histories to the present. It rubs off on the visitors, too. We always come home from a visit felling refreshed and elated. Last weekend I had different experience. I went to Holkham Hall, stately home of the Viscount Coke, a property of National Trust like stature and plenty of riches to go with it. It is a lived-in property and yet when we went there with friends, it felt like a museum. Yes, we were greeted in a friendly manner, but the whole place felt stiff. An exhibition by Magnum Photographer Chris Perkins-Steele promised to ‘reveal life behind a working estate’ but did none of that. Alongside the many words describing how this living estate is a significant employer for the region, how it is ‘firmly rooted in the present’ were mostly staged pictures depicting staff and a country life as it would have been 100 years ago. This was echoed in the experience we had walking through the rooms. The setting was much the same as at National Trust properties: a stately home in beautiful grounds, people were friendly and knowledgeable, proud even, but the spirit was distinctly different – a noticeable distance between the inhabitants and the visitors. We were made to look up, not in. Isn’t it ironic: one property feels alive despite it being a museum. The other property feels cold and museal, even though people are living there. It shows how whatever spirit permeates through an organisation, it manifests itself as a – good or bad – customer experience. I’m certain to renew my National Trust membership when it expires.