I spent two days this week at Dunham Massey in Cheshire, attending a regional directors’ meeting. The venue was chosen in order to showcase two very exciting new additions to the property. First, it has a fantastic new visitor reception, including a beautifully arranged shop and a very busy catering outlet. But also, and opening just a few weeks after the visitor centre earlier this year, Dunham also boasts the Trust’s latest interpretation success story: Sanctuary from the Trenches.
The General Manager explained to us that the whole project blossomed from a moment of inspiration that he had one evening. Knowing that Dunham Massey had been a military hospital during World War 1, he wondered what it might be like to re-present the house as if it were a hospital once again. He tried the idea out on his team, and found that lots of people loved it, including many of the 500 or so volunteers. And so, two years later, Dunham Massey’s main rooms were emptied of their furniture, and replaced by metal hospital beds and all manner of audio-visual echoes of the Great War (including very clever use of recorded sound at various points on the visitor route).
An especially evocative feature of Sanctuary is that the property has employed a company of actors to recreate the parts of several of the people who had been at Dunham Massey, either as patients or nurses. The actors act out scenes at various times during the day, amongst the crowds of visitors. It is a highly engaging piece of theatre, as we watch one of the nurses read out a letter from home to one of the soldiers who has lost his sight in battle, or we overhear the blossoming romance between a patient and one of the nurses. (In real life, they went on to marry.) All the stories were exhaustively researched, using records held at the house and elsewhere.
Sanctuary has certainly put the property on the map: there’s been a significant increase in visitors, helping to meet the costs of setting up and running the show. The acting transforms the historic interior of Dunham Massey, and we see the property in an entirely new light: as a site of drama and tragedy, a consequence of the country’s involvement in the war. The forging of the connection between the mansion and the wider world was the subject of our subsequent discussions, as we explored how the Trust’s approach to interpretation might develop more generally in the future across our properties.
Sanctuary shows the value of taking a few risks with our approach to interpretation, which needn't simply be confined to showing our houses as static displays. Anglesey Abbey’s Domestic Wing has shown a similar sort of creativity – and it’s exciting to think of where the next big opportunity might be for this sort of intervention at our historic places.