BRITISH ASIANS are being encouraged to visit National Trust properties as the organisation is striving to improve diversity among its members, volunteers and staff, its director general Hilary McGrady told Eastern Eye in an exclusive interview.
As Europe’s premier conservation charity, the trust safeguards more than 500 historic houses, castles, archaeological and industrial monuments, gardens, parks and nature reserves, as well as 780 miles of coast on behalf of the nation.
In 2020, it marked its 125th anniversary, determined to move away from its reputation of being “too English and too posh”.
Its three founders in 1895 were Octavia Hill, Robert Hunter and Hardwicke Rawnsley, who wanted trust properties to be open to everyone. Today, it has 5.37 million members, 50,000 volunteers and 10,000 staff.
McGrady wants greater diversity in all these areas so when British Asians visit trust properties, “they should see people like themselves”.
In 2020, the trust published a report on the history of its properties. It revealed that 93 of them had been owned by people who had made their money in the colonies, often by exploiting subjugated races or from the slave trade.
The report triggered a backlash against the trust and its director general by right-wing politicians and media, who even urged the Charity Commission to remove its charitable status. However, a recent opinion poll found that 71 per cent of the public support the work of the trust and believe it is a force for good.
In any case, McGrady had stuck undaunted to her mission of digging into the history of its properties. She said the 115-page report published three years ago was an “interim” one. More information will be added to the report as fresh discoveries are made.
In Eastern Eye’s ACTAs (Arts Culture & Theatre Awards) in February this year, the National Trust won the “community engagement award” for “shining a light on hidden aspects of the British empire”.
McGrady said about the 2020 report: “Our original plan was it would be a one-off piece of research. But the more we’ve researched, the more we have found. It’s turning out to be a rolling bit of research that we’re going to continue to do.
“We’re every day revealing another story. Every time we open a drawer, there’s something else that gets revealed. It’s creating a really rich seam of information that will be an ongoing thing.
“I am always at pains to say this history should be interesting to everyone. We are certainly very keen to ensure we tell that history very clearly and in a way that does appeal to a broad audience.”
She has been “saddened” by some of the hostile reaction to the report. “Surely understanding this history adds depth, adds richness, adds interest for anyone regardless of who you are, what your background is,” McGrady said.
“I suppose there is a political dimension to it, which I think is really unfortunate. Setting that aside, it’s more important to me to do the right thing.
“From the trust’s perspective, that was always to be open and honest about the places that we own, the history that’s connected with them, to engage as many people as we can. We’re here for the whole nation.”
This year – in a first – Diwali was celebrated at Kedleston Hall, an estate in Derbyshire which had once been the home of Lord Curzon, the viceroy of India from 1899-1905. And a local artisan, Anisha Parmar, was invited to come up with a jewellery line inspired by the large Indian collection at Kedleston.
Another innovation was a “Bollywood picnic” at the Knoll beach in Studland Bay in Dorset. The trust also has an active film unit, which would continue to make its sites available for the shooting of Bollywood movies, McGrady said.
She wants to encourage groups like the “Muslim hikers” to be confident enough to enjoy the trust’s outdoor spaces.
McGrady was also keen to change the perception that ethnic minorities are somehow “an alien presence” in England’s green and pleasant land.
The historian Corinne Fowler, a lead contributor to the trust’s colonial report, is the author of Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England’s Colonial Connections. She has been working on another book, The Countryside: Ten Rural Walks Through Britain and Its Hidden History of Empire.
Prof Fowler and Celia Richardson, the National Trust’s director of communications and marketing, were the ones who collected the ACTA earlier this year.
McGrady, who has been director general since 2018, having joined the organisation in 2006, was born and raised in Northern Ireland where she still lives. She grew up with “two particular passions”. One was the arts and the other, a love of the outdoors and especially hill walking.
“I grew up during the troubles,” she said, referring to the years of sectarian Protestant-Catholic and IRA [Irish Republican Army] violence. “One of the escapes from that was certainly to be in the outdoors. I lived in quite a rural area. One of the few things you could do relatively safely was to go walking. And so, I spent all of my free time in the outdoors.”
A perception when she was growing up was that the National Trust was for those who were “English and posh”.
“I wasn’t either of those things.
It took me until I was well into my 20s to realise that, actually, the trust has a huge amount to offer to anyone, regardless of who you are or where you are from.”
It is this knowledge she now wishes to impart to British Asians.
“We are keen to attract more people generally, but particularly south Asian people. We have a lot to offer. The trust has always been here for everyone. But it’s fair to say that, for a long time, we have not thought carefully about how we can engage people beyond our mainstream audiences.
“Over the last certainly five years and I would say decade, we have been very actively trying to find new ways to engage with people from the south Asian community. Now, I would argue that what we offer is universally wonderful. But, clearly, there are barriers to people feeling welcome.
“So we’ve been working incredibly hard to make sure that people see their own history reflected in our places, and that they see people who work and volunteer for the trust who look like them. We ensure that we have taken down as many barriers as we possibly can – whether they are psychological or real – so people feel the trust is for them.”
She added: “We’ve certainly tried to raise awareness of what we have. It’s early days, but we want our own organisation to reflect those communities, too. We’re doing lots of internal work.”
McGrady picked out a number of properties of particular interest to British Asians – Kedleston Hall, Powis Castle in Wales, Osterley Park and House in west London, and Carding Mill Valley with miles of footpath and open countryside in Shropshire.
Curzon, regarded by historians as the most important of the viceroys, left a lasting legacy. In order to foster communal tension, he partitioned Bengal in 1905, so as to set Hindu-dominated West Bengal from East Bengal, where the Muslims were in a majority. At independence, the former remained in India, the latter became East Pakistan, and Bangladesh in 1971 after seceding from Pakistan.
But Curzon also restored the Taj Mahal which had fallen into a state of disrepair and become surrounded by jungles. And at the behest of his wife, Mary, who wanted to save the great one-horned rhinoceros from possible extinction, he set aside a reserved forest area in Assam, which later became the Kaziranga National Park.
India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru remarked: “After every other viceroy has been forgotten, Curzon will be remembered because he restored all that is beautiful in India.”
“Kedleston is one of my favourite properties from an architectural and design point of view,” said McGrady. “It has a Robert Adams interior that is particularly beautiful. The Indian collection there is very, very significant.”
Talking of the trust’s “wonderful partnership” with Parmar, she said: “She is an artist, a jeweller, so we asked her to do her sort of cultural response to the collection. She focused on some of the Indian adornments. As a consequence, she did a very beautiful exhibition with video, photography, dance and music, completely changing the context in which the items were viewed.
“We have been able to build on that. We worked with the local community who have been celebrating Diwali at Kedleston. They have taken over three rooms with beautiful Diwali displays.”
Powis Castle contains the collection of Robert Clive (1725-1774). Known as “Clive of India”, he was the first British governor of the Bengal Presidency. He is credited with laying down the foundations of the East India Company and British rule in India.
He famously said, “I stand astonished at my own moderation,” when accused of looting India by his political enemies in England. After his apparent suicide, Samuel Johnson wrote Clive “had acquired his fortune by such crimes that his consciousness of them impelled him to cut his own throat.”
Several of his acquisitions are on display in the Clive Museum at Powis Castle, along with items acquired subsequently by his son Edward, who also served in India. These include Tipu Sultan’s magnificent state tent, made of painted chintz; gold and bejewelled tiger’s head finials from Tipu’s throne; two cannons that are today positioned on either side of the castle entrance, and textiles, armour, weapons, bronzes, silver pieces, and collections of jade and ivory.
“It’s one of our most important collections,” said McGrady. “We’ve certainly been doing a lot of research into it. The next stage is to think about how we present that more fully. The history is completely fascinating. It’s challenging in many respects. The story is a painful one, but it’s utterly intriguing in terms of how the collection came to be there, what items are included, some of them very, very rare indeed.”
The grounds of Osterley Park, not far from Heathrow, are popular with Asians who live in the area. “It’s their local park, so they take huge enjoyment from it.”
Shropshire has Carding Mill Valley, which is recommended for everything from a bracing walk to a mountain bike ride, a wild swim or just taking in the views.
“It has quite a large Asian community on its doorstep,” said McGrady. “During the summer Asian families like to meet there and cook food.”
As director general, McGrady is not supposed to express preferences, but she laughed and said: “I always like an excuse to go to Crom – it’s my favourite property.”
According to the trust, the 2,000 acres of parkland at Crom, in County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, “lie beside the shores of Upper Lough Erne, an ancient landscape which includes the ruins of the old castle.”
She also mentioned the Clandeboye estate in County Down in Bangor, Northern Ireland, which is in the hands of the Guinness family. Lord Dufferin, a family member, was viceroy of India from 1884-1888.
“They have a wonderful Indian collection,” said McGrady. “I would say it’s up there with Kedleston actually. It’s in private ownership. They keep it very quiet.”
Trust properties can be used to host Indian weddings. “We used to do a huge amount of weddings – all types of weddings. Inevitably, weddings require properties to close, so we do less of them. But that isn’t to say it is impossible.”