Hannah Grigson, who many of you know (Reception), was recently at Clumber House, Nottinghamshire…
I recently spent a week with the National Trust in North Nottinghamshire as part of the British Museum’s Visitor Service Knowledge Circle, which is a programme to support professional development for Visitor Service staff across eight partner organisations. My placement gave me the opportunity to visit two very different National Trust properties and to learn a lot about the work they do to maximise their visitor experience.
Most of my week was spent at Clumber Park which was once the estate of the Dukes of Newcastle and comprises more than 3,800 acres of parkland, heath and woods. The stately home was demolished in 1938 but there remains a Gothic-style chapel, often referred to as a ‘Cathedral in miniature’, beautiful pleasure grounds and a stunning walled garden. Clumber Park is the most visited pay per head National Trust property in England and Wales and welcomes over 650,000 visitors per year.
The other property in nearby Worksop, Mr Straw’s House, couldn’t be more different and is described by the Trust as an ”ordinary home and extraordinary house”. It is a suburban, semi-detached house which is virtually unchanged since the 1930s and houses a unique collection of artefacts. The size of the property necessitates booking in advance and visitors are taken on timed tours with only four people per tour. My visit offered an insight into the challenges of managing a visitor attraction that welcomes 10,000 visitors a year but is designed for one family to live in.
My placement gave me the opportunity to have many in depth discussions with the visitor experience teams at both properties – ranging from learning and outreach, supporter engagement, admissions and membership, volunteering and community involvement, collections management, the visitor journey, public programming, marketing and communications and the visitor experience outdoors including a tour around the Clumber Park estate and a fascinating visit to the walled garden. I also found out about ‘Clumber Park Revitalised’, which is a 10-year investment programme to improve conservation and the visitor experience.
I ended my first day by giving a presentation on the Salisbury Museum and the work we do highlighting our temporary exhibitions and our ‘talking objects’ programme. There followed a discussion on exhibition programming and the need sometimes to be brave and plan exhibitions which attract new audiences. The team were interested to hear about the success of our Terry Pratchett: His World exhibition. One of the elements the Trust gather information on is the emotional impact of their visitors’ experience. I am certain sure our Terry Pratchett exhibition would have scored highly in terms of ‘emotional impact’ and this is one of the reasons why it was such a success.
Further discussions about ‘emotional impact’ took place at Mr Straw’s House the following day. Their score for ‘emotional impact’ in the visitor feedback was directly affected by the theme of the temporary exhibition. During my visit the exhibition was focused on the experience of the Straw family’s sons in World War 1 and this had increased their score from the previous year. One of the things I found fascinating about the property was the focus on the four individuals, Mr and Mrs Straw and their two sons, who had lived at the property from 1920 to when it was taken on by the Trust in 1990. Their story is one that is manageable in scale and one that many people can relate to – it was both personal and moving.
Forming an emotional connection through story telling is one of the themes highlighted in the National Trust’s ‘Inspire to Engage’ programme. The Trust endeavours to make their visitor experience ‘easy, personal and memorable’ and the aim is that a visit to one of their properties should be both ‘emotionally rewarding and intellectually stimulating’. Stories can be used to engage, influence, teach and inspire – we are 22 times more likely to remember and be emotionally connected to a story than we are to straight facts. The process is two way – so visitors should be able to respond to what they have experienced and share their own stories. Throughout our Terry Pratchett exhibition, I was stuck by how much our visitors wanted to talk to us about what Sir Terry and his books meant to them and to share how this had impacted on their own personal stories and experiences.
Another important factor in the ‘Inspire to Engage’ programme is the ‘Peak End Rule’. The Nobel prize-winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, pointed out that people could only remember two things from an experience – how we feel at the peak (regardless of whether the experience proves to be ultimately good or bad) and how we feel at the end. The peak end feelings summarise our whole experience and plays a determining factor in what we feel about our visit and whether we will want to engage with it again. It is therefore extremely important that visitors end their experience on a high, so they feel connected and wish to return.
My discussions with the staff repeatedly demonstrated the importance of emotional connections in the Trust’s outlook. They are constantly seeking to make connections and to build relationships with their visitors, volunteers, with schools and education groups and with the wider community. A feeling of connectivity is paramount – the aim is to reach out to their visitors and to the local community and to encourage loyalty, not just to the place but to the organisation as a whole. This encourages repeat visits and membership which are vital to the sustainability of the Trust.
I talked with the Trust staff about how community engagement had played an important part in turning a recent negative experience into something positive. Earlier this year Clumber Park’s Grade II listed ornamental bridge was badly damaged in an act of vandalism when someone deliberately drove a car into the 250-year old structure. This caused outrage in the local community and many wanted to get involved to help support the restoration of the bridge. The staff at Clumber have taken this an opportunity to reach out to the community through a number of initiatives and to involve people in recording their memories of the bridge and the part it has played in their lives – many shared wedding photos taken on the bridge or told stories of how their child had taken their first steps there.
I couldn’t help drawing a parallel with Salisbury’s own recent difficulties following the tragic ‘novichok’ incident in March 2018 and the devastating impact this has had on visitor numbers. It highlights the necessity of forming positive connections with our local community so that we have a solid base of support – through our membership scheme but also through community initiatives – to help carry us through difficult times and to make us financially sustainable and resilient to change.
Another way this can be achieved is by working with partner organisations. Clumber Park is situated in an area known as the Dukeries, a reference to the fact that it was one of five ducal estates in a small area. The Park now works with tour companies to offer a combined visit to a number of these estates so rather than seeing the neighbouring attractions as competition, they have found that working together they are stronger and can give an enhanced offer. This got me thinking about ways we can form good working partnerships with the other nearby attractions in the Close to make a stronger offer to our visitors.
On my final morning I had the opportunity to find out about Clumber Park’s marketing and communications and some of their successes. Last summer parch marks caused by the hot, dry weather revealed the outline of the walls of the demolished mansion. This really caught the imagination of the visitors and created a buzz on social media. The BBC’s ‘The One Show’ picked up on the story and came to film at Clumber which boosted visitor numbers hugely. The Trust positioned furniture and created a door on the mansion site to bring the experience alive for their visitors and this proved extremely popular. They also arranged for an archaeological dig on the site which resulted in the discovery of a number of interesting finds.
Hitting on a good story and bringing it alive for visitors can really capture both the public and media interest and is a way of reaching out to new audiences. The placing of furniture and a door on the old mansion site showed me how the Trust are not afraid of thinking outside the box to engage visitors in innovative ways. They are in fact actively seeking ways to bring places to life for their supporters. They are committed to improve what they are doing, and they do this by identifying what they should stop doing and by doing more of what they do well. The message I took from my placement was to be bold and brave, and to put people and their stories at the forefront of what you do as a means of bringing artefacts and places alive, and by doing so creating memorable experiences and encouraging support.
I came home literally buzzing with ideas and inspiration which I am looking forward to sharing. The collective passion and enthusiasm of the staff and volunteers at the National Trust shone out both at Clumber Park and at Mr Straw’s House. It was fascinating to get an insight into the workings of two such contrasting properties. This comparison coupled with my own experiences at the Salisbury Museum showed me that however different the organisation, the size of the attraction, or whether the primary focus is indoors or out – we all face similar challenges and share a communality of passion and commitment in ensuring our visitors get the best possible experience, whilst securing our heritage for future generations.