This week has again been a busy one, what with thursday marking exactly two months until Christmas day, and today being only a week before our Christmas decorations start going up in the castle!! Our State Rooms are being put to bed a week on monday and Christmas officially open on the 17th November, I have to keep reminding myself we haven’t even had Halloween yet! We have a lot to do and not too long to do it but Christmas should be very magical, I’m really looking forward to it and enjoying the challenge too!
On Wednesday all the Powis Castle House Staff took a trip to Chirk Castle for the day for the first All Wales House Staff Meeting, which will hopefully become an annual event. I was so excited about this as the program of talks looked really interesting, and it would be a chance to catch up with some of the people I have met during my time with the Trust, as well as meet new people too! The talks were about issues that are affecting all the Trust properties at the moment, such as bringing place to life and how to get around difficulties such as more staff needing training than places available on training courses.
Will, our House Steward, also gave a talk about having Interns and Long Term Volunteers, and there was a lot of talk in that area during the day. I felt this was really positive as I have loved and appreciated this experience so much so far and it is great to know that it will continue and benefit of others like myself in the future. Having Long Term Volunteers is also beneficial for properties struggling with being short staffed but that do have the funding to employ more hands. It gives us the opportunity to experience working for the Trust and helps House Teams get they work that needs doing done. Internships are fantastic to get particular projects off the ground by having one person focus on them. I joke we could have done with an Intern purely dedicated to managing our new Christmas theme this year!
The talks that gave me the most food for thought were the talks on social media, making me think about my blog. It is how going so much better than I ever expected and the talks gave me some ideas how to increase it’s range, as well as tips on writing posts and finding good stories to write about. This also helped to give me some ideas and focus for the social media side of the work I’m doing for the Castle now.
I spent a lot of the day talking to different members of Trust staff in different areas. Days like this are a fantastic opportunity to network and ask questions from experts in particular areas. Me and Ben were talking to Ken, who gave the talk about Social Media, and he has agreed to come over to Powis and give us some training and advice to help us in our new role. I also talked to one of the Trust’s regional conservators who specialises in Textile Conservation, about her work, with a possibility of shadowing her, and she gave me some great tips about steps to take if I decide to go down the route of specialising in textiles ( a real interest of mine outside of work).
Another talk that me and Kate found very interesting and relevant to our work in the Kitchens was a talk about the Trust’s Bringing Places to Life initiative. The talk was given by Liz, a Trust regional conservator, and Hawys, Visitor Experience Consultant for the Trust in Wales. Their talk really made us think about the way we were going to present our research in the kitchens and changed our minds quite radically. We had always wanted people to be able to come into the kitchens and see it in the midst of a working day, and for people to be able to handle a lot of the objects and learn by doing. We had though about putting large boards of interpretation into the space in the New Year, but after the talk we are beginning to re-think this idea. In a space like what we have with the kitchens it should be possible for us to illustrate its purpose and how it was used with a minimum of written interpretation, relying more on objects and our wonderful volunteers to tell the story of the space.
Over lunch we were taken on a tour around Chirk’s newly opened rooms; the Lord Howard de Walden exhibition. A lot of funding has been up into this area with an emphasis on accessibility and bringing places to life, so a lot of the items in the rooms can be handled and furniture can be sat on. I was very jealous of the fact that they can also light a real fire in one of their rooms! The smell of woodsmokre makes me think of re-enactment. It felt very homely but one of the things we were discussing going round was how do you know what you can touch and what you cannot. It raised issues we had begun thinking about in our kitchens project.
Having been a member of the National Trust for as long as I can remember I have spent many family holidays visiting beautiful historic properties, and and used to walking around, hands in pocket, looking but not touching. I am sure many people who have been frequent visitors will say the same, and it is this feeling of not being able to totally engage with the collection that the Trust is hoping to change. Obviously there will always have to be limitations, for the sake of the collections, but in areas such as the de Walden exhibition and our Old Kitchens, how do you encourage people to break out of the routine and touch the handling collections?
It is a complicated question, on one hand to create a more immersive experience we are trying to move away from too many sign s and flat media interpretation. There was a suggestion of ‘please do touch’ signs, or pictures of a hand touching objects to get the point across, but them we are going back on our other objective minimising the number of signs we have. We hope that having a volunteer in the Kitchens, who will be interacting with the public and picking up the collection themselves will encourage visitors to do the same. We will also have activities set out that will allow people to discover the kitchens use through encouraging them to handle the collection we have on display there. I think it will be a case of playing it by ear, trying new things and seeing how the visitors react to them.
On the flip side if we do get people used to being able to touch objects and sit on furniture, how do we then differentiate between areas where this is allowed and encouraged and areas where it is not possible? There are properties that the Trust owns where all items in the collection have been brought in (maybe because there was no native collection) and people can touch everything. However when they then come to Powis and find that they cannot touch our collection (as is the case on days when the kitchens are not open) will they be disappointed and enjoy their visit less because of this? Is there a danger that the opposite of how I feel will happen, and people will come into properties and handle things because this is what they are used to, which would be very damaging to collection that are inherent to properties and cannot be replaced. Again I think this is another dilemma in heritage that cannot be answered one way or another, but must be looked at case by case, where things should be attempted and changed reactively, as this is the only way any of the questions surrounding the issue can be answered!