National Trust Edge City Croydon

How National Trust London is using creativity to change our ideas of heritage

As a new immersive exhibition opens at National Trust property Fenton House in London, we talk to NTL creative director Joseph Watson about how his department is experimenting with new ways of approaching historical buildings and heritage, and why it recently focused its attention on Croydon.

When thinking of the National Trust, it is unlikely that the first thing that comes to mind will be Brutalism. Instead, it has a somewhat different image. “Country houses and cream teas?” says Joseph Watson, Creative Director of National Trust London, when I tentatively broach the organisation’s reputation with him. Well, yes.

But in London, Watson and his team are experimenting with a number of different ways of thinking about heritage, and also examining the broader question of where the National Trust could and should be operating. This has brought about forays into promoting Brutalism across London, Sheffield and Norwich, and also a project looking at both the heritage and future potential of Croydon, an area that, let’s face it, couldn’t be much further from the accepted image of the National Trust.

Edge City Croydon National Trust
Top: from Edge City, Croydon National Trust project; Above: Fairfield House in Croydon. Photos: Sophia Schorr-Kon
Edge City, Croydon National Trust
Fairfield Halls, Croydon. Photo: Sophia Schorr-Kon

Watson joined the organisation six years ago, initially to look after two buildings: Fenton House, a beautiful Georgian property in Hampstead, described as ‘a country house in the city’, and 2 Willow Road, a Modernist home designed by Ernö Goldfinger in 1939 for the architect and his family. The contrast between the properties is stark but has set the tone for Watson’s preoccupations since becoming creative director in 2015, which mix new ways of thinking of London’s Modern and Postmodern buildings – and of what is worthy of the public’s interest as a heritage building – as well as experimental approaches in historical exhibition design.

“My little department – and it is a tiny department – we’re really the R&D department for the National Trust,” Watson explains. “So we test things – sometimes we get things wrong, sometimes we get things right. And we’re always happy to admit when we haven’t got a thing right, then we’ll say ‘okay, we’ll go and do something else’. So it’s learning by doing really, because otherwise you just get caught in the bureaucracy of fear. You might imagine bold new futures, but then you never do anything about it. This is about saying ‘let’s try some new things, see what works, and if things work, if people respond well to things, then we’ll do more of it. And if they don’t, then we’ll do less of it.’ It’s quite realistic about wanting to learn from our audiences – we want to learn what our audiences want, in order to then do more of that.”

Southbank Centre Brutalism National Trust
Above and below: Exterior of the Southbank Centre. Photos: Sophia Schorr-Kon
Southbank Centre Brutalism National Trust

The projects conducted by Watson – and his predecessor, Ivo Dawnay – have seen the National Trust promote Brutalist buildings including Balfron Tower and the Southbank Centre in London, Park Hill in Sheffield and the University of East Anglia in Norwich. In Croydon, in July this year, it delivered ‘Edge City’, a project that involved walking tours of the area, taking in Fairfield Halls, currently closed for refurbishment, and other significant local buildings, as well events and film screenings.

Writing in a guide to accompany the project, Watson says: “Focusing our attention on Croydon is a necessary next step for the National Trust. We believe everywhere has its own unique spirit of place, and we know how much pride Croydonians feel for their town. So this is a riposte to the authors of Crap Towns, to those who might argue ‘there’s no there there”, a celebration of this ‘Edge City’ which is, in the words of Jonathan Glancey, ‘like nowhere else’.”

Southbank Centre Brutalism National Trust
Above and below: Behind-the-scenes at the Southbank Centre in London. Photos: Sophia Schorr-Kon
Southbank Centre Brutalism National Trust

For Watson, these projects form part of a wider conversation about what heritage means today. “If we see ourselves as an organisation which is a champion for heritage, for nature and for beauty, then where are the boundaries of those things?,” he says. “What does it mean to describe a building as beautiful? Can Brutalism be beautiful? What is heritage, where does heritage stop? Whose heritage is it?”

The aim is both to raise these questions, but also directly protect important buildings that may be under threat, simply because their architectural styles are out of fashion. “Fifty years ago we were busy knocking down huge swathes of Victorian London in the name of progress,” he says. “And now we’re knocking down Brutalism, we’re knocking down Modernism, we’re knocking down all those more recent things, which are equally important, in the name of progress. We’re not saying all Brutalism must be protected, we’re not saying that all Postmodernism must be protected, nothing of the sort. But we are saying we need to protect the layers of history and of architectural history, and cultural heritage too, that this nation has stood for in lots of different ways through the ages.”

Brutalism Park Hill Sheffield
Above and below: Park Hill in Sheffield. Photos: © Urban Splash
Brutalism Park Hill Sheffield

As well as introducing new ways of thinking about the National Trust and the wider question of heritage, Watson and his team are also keen to explore new thinking in how history can be presented to audiences. This is evident in a new exhibition at Fenton House, on show until December 23, which sees the house and its contents transformed. Created in collaboration with ‘immersive experiences’ company Traces, work by 80 contemporary artists has been added, to tell the story of the Gee family, prominent silk and linen merchants who lived in the house in the 1730s. It is a multi-sensory experience, with audiences invited to interact with letters, diaries and even a VR experience to unlock the secrets of the family, which are all enjoyably juicy.

It is a very different experience to a traditional exhibition. There are no boards displaying the history, and none of the artworks are labelled. This means that audiences who like comprehensive information, easily understood, might feel a little frustrated. But the pay off is a rich, playful experience, that turns the house into a story, waiting to be uncovered.

Fenton House exhibition National Trust
Above and below: scenes from the Fenton House exhibition. Photos: Sophia Schorr-Kon
Fenton House exhibition National Trust

“This is absolutely an experiment in telling a story in a very different way,” says Watson. “This place is renowned for its collections, that’s probably the thing that it’s most famous for really…. So to tell this story through objects felt like it was absolutely the right thing to do. To get all of those contemporary craftmakers, designers, artists in, to respond or to provide particular pieces that fitted under the theme of contemporary Georgian. To then play around with that just felt like it was entirely appropriate at Fenton.”

Watson also explains that this approach is part of a wider debate in historical exhibition design. “There are huge debates, not just within the National Trust but within the museological community at large, about what interpretation should look like, what it should be, what labeling should we be putting on things, what lighting should we be using, all that sort of stuff,” he says.

“I think this was again about saying ‘let’s just play with some of that for a while’. It’s fine to play with it, it’s fine to play with the narrative, it’s fine for people to not be quite sure about what it is they’re allowed to touch and what they’re not allowed to touch in this context. We know that our audiences are respectful and that’s a good thing to have – that’s your starting point. But actually there clearly are things around, like letters that you can pick up and start to read and start to piece together parts of the narrative about the family who might have lived here.”

(Lives, Loves and Loss - Traces at Fenton House) Photo by Giovanna Del Sarto (1).tif
Above and below: Scenes from the Fenton House exhibition. Photos: Traces/Giovanna Del Sarto
(Lives, Loves and Loss - Traces at Fenton House) Photo by Traces/Giovanna Del Sarto (1).tif

There is an element of theatre to the Fenton House exhibition, with audiences given faux candlesticks to carry around, and period-correct sweets to suck on. Watson admits that he has looked to immersive theatre for inspiration for projects such as this, and that he has also found collaborations with those from outside the world of museums extremely valuable.

“We’ve started to look not to other institutions but to creative partners, the ones who are doing things that are completely different,” he says. “Because I think there’s something about the completely different eye that a creative partner will bring to a place like this with us and our institutional ways that brings immense value.

“It’s individuals or small creative companies and collectives – for me, we learn so much more from them than we would from simply looking at the national museums or like-minded organisations,” he concludes. “They’re all doing great things, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something more interesting we can do.”

Lives, Loves and Loss: Traces at Fenton House is on show at Fenton House and Gardens in Hampstead until December 23. For wider information on National Trust London project, visit nationaltrust.org.uk/london

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