History cannot be ‘eclipsed’ by woke views, says new National Trust chief

·3 min read
René Olivieri - National Trust
René Olivieri - National Trust

History cannot be “eclipsed” by modern views, according to the new chairman of the National Trust, in an apparent attempt to draw a line under the “woke” row that has engulfed the charity.

In his first interview since taking the post in February, René Olivieri said that new perspectives do not take precedence over the current understanding of the past and different views should be taken together as part of the “tapestry” of understanding.

The charity has faced anger in recent years over its perceived attempts to rewrite history, including adding Winston Churchill’s home to a list of buildings linked to slavery and colonialism.

The new chairman said that he was “grateful” that people felt strongly about the Trust’s work and he wanted to hear the criticisms.

When asked about the rows, Mr Olivieri told Country Life magazine: “It’s important – as far as conservation allows – to make these buildings and their contents more interesting to more people.

“Added to which, we are all entitled to ask different questions about the past. A new view, however, does not supersede its predecessors, nor can it eclipse other perspectives.

“Each is another thread in the tapestry of our understanding, adding colour, richness and depth to the whole.”

The comments will be seen as an attempt to reconcile with members and volunteers who have accused the charity of a “woke agenda” and of dumbing down the historic properties left in their care.

The anger at the direction was so great that a campaign group, Restore Trust, was established to remind the charity of its original purpose of protecting the nation’s heritage “for everyone, for ever”.

They had called for the resignation of the previous chairman, Tim Parker, who quit in May last year after a seven-year term which saw the Trust involved in a series of controversies. The charity said that his decision to leave was not linked to the group’s demands.

‘Cathedral thinking’

When he was appointed in December, Mr Olivieri was described as a “safe pair of hands” who had previously overseen the RSPCA’s climb-down from its much maligned “political” role, including private prosecutions.

He remains chair of the animal charity, a role he began in March 2019.

The first American to take the helm at the National Trust, Mr Olivieri has held several non-executive roles in the cultural and natural heritage sector but has not been involved in politics or made public comments on the so-called “culture wars” that have engulfed the Trust’s leadership.

He used his first interview to emphasise his belief in “cathedral thinking” – taking the long-view of projects that must be realised for the sake of future generations.

It is the belief in the importance of preserving for future generations, or as Mr Olivieri puts it looking after things that we “borrow from our children”, that has also made fighting climate change a key priority for his new role.

He acknowledged that the Trust needed to address the fact that their places are often only accessible by car but said that they could not change the transportation system alone.

Despite a reconciliatory tone, the new chair is still facing an uphill battle to convince members that the Trust has not lost its way.

Restore Trust have submitted a resolution for debate at the AGM in the autumn calling for the creation of a watchdog to ensure the charity is accountable to its members, volunteers and tenants.

An ombudsman would deal with complaints which are currently Mr Olivieri’s domain and is seen as essential as he is not independent from the board.

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