When it comes to protecting our heritage, we won’t know what we’ve got til it’s gone

Salem 2IT’S a long way from here to Salem, Massachusetts, but that’s where my mind traveled when I heard this week’s news of significant redundancies at the National Trust for Scotland (NTS). If ever you need a reminder of how lucky we are to have well-protected heritage sites, I suggest you make a trip to this infamous city. If you want to learn about the witch trials, I suggest you go to the library.

There are several “museums” in Salem, and I can state with some certainty that each one is a shoddy tourist trap, providing a sketched account of the dreadful events of the late 17th century while hawking supernatural tat in a gift shop. Think low-rent amateur dramatics and dusty basement dioramas that make 1990s New Lanark look like Universal Studios. In addition there are heritage sites including “Witch House” – the former home of the local magistrate who signed arrest warrants for many of those who were later hanged or “pressed” to death – and the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, a poignant collection of stone benches inscribed with details of those who died.

Salem’s low-rent amateur dramatics and dusty basement dioramas make 1990s New Lanark look like Universal Studios

Witch House is owned by the city of Salem, not by any nationwide heritage body, and it shows. It’s an excellent reminder that specialist charities are pretty damn good at this stuff: at producing signage that’s free from typographical errors; at displaying historical documents and artefacts so they’re both protected and accessible; at bringing history alive for people of all ages and education levels. Most importantly of all, when considering dark periods of history, for treating the past with respect. For ensuring that a memorial to a group of marginalised, powerless people who died horribly after being accused of witchcraft isn’t surrounded by ghost trains and broomsticks. For creating an environment that doesn’t encourage or allow anyone to leave a Hallowe’en card resting on a memorial stone like some kind of sick joke.

All of this requires careful planning and responsible stewardship, so it should be of concern to all Scots that one in four NTS workers is facing redundancy due to falling visitor numbers at its properties. The cuts will be focused on the Trust’s office in Edinburgh, so the workers set to be affected are not physically present at its castles, museums, woodlands or other precious sites, but there’s an awful lot more to preserving the past than maintaining bricks and mortar and giving guided tours.

Of course, the NTS isn’t perfect: few organisations are. In his 2010 review, George Reid called its lumbering governance arrangements “byzantine” and said reform was the only way forward. It’s been criticised for the positioning of its original visitor centre at Glen Coe, for paying its senior executive big bonuses, for failing to protect seabirds, for failing to cull deer … and it’s absolutely right that these decisions are all publicised and scrutinised. Our trust in the Trust should not be unconditional, but it’s worth considering that we won’t know what we’ve got til it’s gone, or til it’s been trimmed back past a point where it can do its job properly.

Many Scots justifiably have very strong views about how our history should be told and how our landscape should be managed

So what’s the answer to boosting visitor numbers? It’s a tricky one. The heritage sector is not unlike the newspaper industry in terms of the careful balancing act it needs to perform if it’s to remain viable: creating conditions that allow it to retain and satisfy existing members or readers while reaching out to newer, younger audiences. Many Scots justifiably have very strong views about how our history should be told and how our landscape should be managed, about which sites deserve protection and how funding should be allocated, and it’s impossible for the NTS to please everyone. But we can surely all agree that its very existence is worth protecting. If you’ve always meant to join but haven’t got around to it, now might be the time. The next generation will thank you for it.

A version of this article first appeared in The Herald.

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