On a tour of the neoclassical Stourhead in Wiltshire, René Olivieri was told that gardeners had planted a tree knowing it would take 300 years to grow big enough to complete the perfect vista.
“Clearly they weren’t doing it for them, they were doing it for us,” he says. “And then it fell down in Storm Arwen last year and Andy Jasper [head of gardens at the National Trust] said that they have planted a little sapling where it stood.
“Somebody on the tour said, ‘But that’s not the same, it doesn’t look the same’. And Andy replied: ‘Give it time’.
“At that moment I thought that is us, that is the National Trust - give it time. And in 300 years’ time, that sapling will be a glorious thing, our gift to the future.”
It is an anecdote that sums up the 69-year-old former publisher’s belief that his responsibility as chairman of the Trust is to be a “good ancestor”.
But the way in which the Trust acts as custodian for future generations is a matter of heated debate.
For a charity known for its tapestries, scones and well-manicured gardens it has found itself on the sharp end of the culture wars, facing anger over a “woke” agenda for moves including “outing” a country squire as gay and linking Winston Churchill to colonialism and slavery.
‘There’s never a final answer’
So why is everyone so angry at the Trust? “I think it’s great,” says Olivieri, who spent most of his career at the helm of Blackwell Publishing. “We live in a free society and the more people talk about why nature matters, why culture matters, why history matters about how these houses should be curated, how biodiversity should be restored, the better.
“I am a scientific publisher, I believe in debate and nothing ever advances without it, there’s never a final answer.”
It is a rare interview for Olivieri, the first major one since he took over in February and fresh from a heated AGM in which the management achieved most of its aims.
He wants to listen, and regularly engages, he says, but he believes that much of the anger at the Trust comes from a misplaced fear that they don’t care about historic properties.
“You can start with me”, he says, sitting in a Georgian home looking out over the garden which is open to the public for six months every year. Since 2007, he and his wife Anne have lovingly restored 300-year-old Morton Hall and researched every single moment of its history.
Olivieri spends two-thirds of his time as the “senior volunteer” visiting historic properties, which they “care deeply about” and plan to spend half a billion pounds on in the next five years.
The charity is listening and “open to criticism and advice”, but he wants to “be very clear” that if they “present something in a way that people don't like” or say is “not respectful” enough, that will not take precedence over their belief in what is best for the property.
They have a motto that they live by: For everyone, for ever.
“It really is important for us to make our places accessible to as many people as possible,” he said. “The demography of this country is changing; we’ve seen that in the recent census.
“We’re about opening doors, and that’s to every aspect of society. We want everybody to feel they’re part of that history or there’s an opportunity for them to engage.”
Whilst some may want to “just enjoy something as an aesthetic experience”, the charity wants everyone whatever their background of history to “find something that speaks to them” whether in the property or in more in-depth online offerings.
But isn’t this opening of doors, the telling of new histories, what has provoked the most anger? Their colonialism and slavery report in 2020 prompted not one but two Parliamentary debates over their future.
“The story can always be enriched, it’s another story,” says Olivieri, undeterred.
“These houses didn't live in isolation. They were a part of a larger social and economic fabric. We want all those stories to be told, rather than saying the Trust should stop publishing things, stop talking about these things.
“We should be doing lots of other types of stories and lots of other types of research. My background is in scientific and social science publishing, and I’m really keen to encourage us to do more of that kind of thing.”
With a membership approaching six million, they are a “broad church” and they “need to cater to all of those different needs”.
‘Curatorial practice has to evolve’
Their aim now is to make that church even broader. They are holding open days, extending hours, giving away free passes. A “future trend” will be bringing conservation and culture into city centres.
“Most of the population lives in urban areas. We don’t want to wait for people to come out to our properties in the countryside, but we want to actually go to the places where people are and create a resource or restore resources within the city.”
They have started with a “park in the sky” at the Victorian Castlefield Viaduct in Manchester, they are working with local authorities to restore local parks and they recently ran a competition for unsigned artists to bring music back to Paul McCartney’s house in Forthlin Road.
It is not just the Trust that is considering its identity, the whole sector is rethinking its position as society changes.
Olivieri, one-time interim chairman of The National Lottery Heritage Fund and a member of the Government's Covid Culture Recovery Fund, has a unique overview.
“Curatorial practice has to evolve in the same way that science does,” he says as he points out that major institutions are “changing the way they present the stuff all the time”.
“It needs to be refreshed. Just because we presented something in just a way or displayed it in such a way 50 years ago, things have changed, people are interested in different aspects and we need to respond to that.”
“We don’t want to go around and tell people what to think about the past. We see ourselves as opening doors and enabling storytelling. It’s the layering of one story, one interpretation after the other.”
The charity has responsibilities beyond storytelling. It is Britain’s largest private landowner, responsible for 780 miles of coastline, 500 historic properties and two-thirds of the world’s population of Herdwick sheep.
And there is one thing that threatens both the built and natural environment: climate change.
Olivieri is worried about pollution, the eroding coastline, biodiversity, flooding, droughts, about the conditions of the rivers, soil, peatlands and wetlands.
In turn, the roofs and guttering of their 17th-century houses cannot cope with torrential rains, they get wet and it encourages pests and diseases. If a moat dries up or the soil shrinks, as is happening at one of their barns, then the foundations begin to crumble.
“We want future generations to look back and say we made the right decisions, the right investments,” he said.
It is these responsibilities that have seen them embroiled in rows about being too political.
In October they criticised then-prime-minister Liz Truss’s plans for growth, described as an “attack on nature”.
Olivieri points out that the Charity Commission have themselves said that it is “desirable for charities to campaign on issues that are central to their charitable purposes” which are “looking after land and landscapes for the benefit of people”.
“We work with the Government all the time behind the scenes”, he insisted, but they had early indications that their “sprint for growth” would see protections that they had supported in the Conservative election manifesto watered down.
They “felt it would have been a dereliction of duty not to speak”.
“We don’t normally come out and say the Government is not doing the right thing,” he said. “Our natural inclination is always to work constructively behind the scenes.
“We felt we had to send a bit of a warning, alongside a lot of other charities. We will do this at times where we feel that the core charitable purpose is under threat.”
‘It’s a unique institution’
Olivieri is no stranger to controversial charities. He remains the chair of the RSPCA, a role he took on as the charity was embroiled in controversies over politicisation and private prosecutions. Does he see himself as a trouble-shooter?
“Let me be absolutely clear,” he says, taking a serious turn. “There is no trouble in the National Trust.”
People are perhaps so concerned about it because there is something uniquely British about it, it holds a special place in the nation’s psyche. Was that a daunting thing to take on, as an American?
Olivieri leans forward and whispers: “I am not an American. I am British.”
He has given up the citizenship of his birthplace and recognises that “the recent covert can be the most fervent”.
Coming from the US, where historic properties are 50 years old, he “couldn’t believe” the diversity that was at his fingertips when he came to the UK 43 years ago.
“The country house that you can visit, that’s owned for the nation inalienably, that is such an amazing phenomenon.
“There is nothing, nothing like this anywhere in the world and there is nothing like the National Trust anywhere in the world. It's a unique institution.
“So I’m very pleased that if people thought my accent was a reason not to put me in this position, then they overcame that and I don’t think it was a problem.”
And he is confident about the Trust’s ability to weather the coming storms. Faced with rising energy costs at their creaking old buildings, for example, they have just completed a record 130 renewable energy projects and are on course to be net zero by 2030.
Olivieri admits that they cannot tackle all the challenges they face alone. They need to work with landowners, with the Government, with other charities and with the public.
But he is under no illusion that it will be easy, or without its critics.
“Some of it will be experimenting and making mistakes, but any organisation that isn’t making the occasional mistake is not trying hard enough.”