A visit to National Trust fake kitchens
We loaded up a few students and motored off to Ickworth this afternoon -- a National Trust property in Suffolk, where we intended to do some country-house creeping and to have a look at the late nineteenth-century "Pompeian room" (actually the paintings are based on a house excavated in Rome in the late eighteenth century).
There was a bad start when we walked in through the front door and the nice volunteer told us that the Pompeian Room was closed for shortage of staff. Full credit where it is due: we looked crest-fallen and explained that that was what we had come specially to see, and she rang up the manager on duty -- who quickly turned up to take us in. Top marks National Trust for that; thank you.
But we didnt feel quite so buoyant, though, when we discovered what must have been the reason for the shortage of staff -- namely that a large number of them had been redeployed to the newly opened below-stairs kitchens.
So after we'd looked at the large number of Zoffany's in the house (including this one), a fantastic self-portrait of Madame Vigée le Brun (on the left), a brilliantly vulgar clock decorated with the scene of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, plus one of Benjamin West's many versions of the Death of Wolfe, we decided to venture to the basement.
It wasn't exactly our cup of tea.
It was a whole suite of rooms, kitchens, estate managers office, servants' loo, visiting valet's room -- all kitted out to be look-alike early twentieth century. Some of it was suspiciously new (a lot of brand new wooden draining boards) and some of it was a bit stage-setty (the great big boiler had a fake fire in it, and a fake noise machine). Most people were obviously enjoying themselves. You were allowed to touch almost everything and there were plenty of "ooh look I remember brillo pads like that" kind of shrieks.
What we didn't much like was the "re-con", the folksy stories that some of the volunteers were keen to inflict on us (about drunken sacked butlers etc) and the glaring fact that most of the paraphernalia (pots and pans and brillo pads) were fairly obviously imported props. But we were nevertheless a bit silenced in the face of the obvious enjoyment of most of the visitors, not to mention the wholly admirable desire to display the servants quarters.
It was only when we sat down to tea (excellent cakes, by the way) and discovered the extent of the fakery that our blood began to boil. According to the (admirably honest) guidebook, the main kitchens weren't even in that part of the basement (they were in the wing of the house that is now used as a hotel); the most there had been in the newly re-opened bit was a place where the food waited to go upstairs. The "servants hall" is a remade copy of the real hall in the now inaccessible East Wing (and the servants bells have been moved across from there to give the right impression. The estate manager's office and the servant's bedroom are both more or less modern fantasies. . .and indeed most of the equipment etc, we were told when we asked, had been donations, with nothing to do with Ickworth at all.
So, dear National Trust, while you shut your brilliant nineteenth century Pompeian Room, and make very little effort to explain to your visitors what they might get out of such world changing pictures as the Death of Wolfe, you invest over £2million of lottery money in faking up a service area.
I'm as keen as the next socialist on exploring the lives of the ordinary people who kept these houses running for the toffs upstairs, but it's insulting to them and us to create a Disneyland servants quarters -- and fob us off with it.
No wonder they let you touch the stuff ... it's not much more than a stage set.