Dinefwr Park and Newton House

In Historic Houses on November 6, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Dinefwr Park in Llandeilo, West Wales, is home to both Dinefwr Castle and Newton House, and is operated by the National Trust.

After really enjoying a visit to the Dolaucothi Gold Mines on the same trip, my hopes for the National Trust’s Newton House were pretty high – I thought that they had a good thing going in Carmarthenshire, and was quite excited to visit (I am excited about visiting most museums. If you do not know this yet, you need to read more blog). However, my high hopes were smashed to smithereens. I can’t really give you a basic intro to Newton House, because I left knowing as little about it as I did going in. The staff at the visitor centre and just inside the house were lovely, and very enthusiastic, but I have absolutely no idea where they got that enthusiasm from.

The atmosphere of Newton House should have been a lot better – it is billed as a “hands-on house”, meaning you can sit on the chairs, open the cupboards, play the piano, etc. This seems like a great i dea on the face of it (unless you’re a conservator, in which case it is the devil’s work), but you have to work a lot harder than that to make an environment engaging. People desperately trying to recall how to play their grade 3 piano pieces in the dining room does nothing to give you a feel for what this place is, why it is important, or how it felt to live or work there.

The service wing of the house is pretty incredible, but everything that could possibly kill the atmosphere has been done. You walk from uninterpreted rooms into a room full of these graphic panels – a clumsy smashing down of the fourth wall if ever there was one. What’s the point in having real toast and tea in the butler’s pantry if in the next room, all pretense is dropped?! I cannot tell you how frustrating it was to chop and change like this. A jaunt upstairs will lead you to the highly frustrating family rooms, where some muppet was invariably trying to remember how to play chopsticks on the grand piano. The staff I mentioned – who were lovely, really – were all concentrated around the front door up here. I’m sure they would be happy to answer questions about the service wing, but they’re a five minute walk away! Room stewarding was perhaps the only interpretive method that wasn’t used here. I never thought I’d miss a room steward in a National Trust house, but I was pushed to such desperation that I really did miss them

It feels as if a different curator or company did each room; don’t get me wrong, that approach can work if you do it right. At Newton, though, there is no sense of continuity – you are left with a jerky visitor experience that teaches you very little. There is an astounding lack of information as well – take this example:

What is that? I know what it is, but the reason I know is that I have worked at an historic house for three years, and we have one too. In Newton House, you have nothing to tell you what this object is – there’s a basket of butterknives next to it, but apart from that, there is nothing in the room or the surrounds to explain what this does. I’m not going to tell you what it is because I want you feel a bit frustrated and ill-informed – that’s the same feeling you’ll get from the Newton House visitor experience. I can’t imagine how that feeling multiplies if your knowledge of historic houses doesn’t come from working in one – I visited with a museum muggle, and he seemed pretty narked about this too – even more than me. The sudden transition on the second floor from restoration room to local museum-type graphic panels and displays about medieval Dinefwr was especially unpopular. Why on earth?!

As you may have guessed at this point, I’m not happy about Newton House. It’s everything that’s awful about the National Trust – the Starbucks-y approach of making every shop different, but mostly the same. The graphic panels, dodgy AV, and “hands-on” approach felt like a cut-n-paste job. All of these interpretive approaches are valuable, and they can work really well, but only with consistency, and in an appropriate setting. The overall impression I got from this schizophrenic visitor experience was that no one cared about Newton House – no one cared about its individuality, its uniqueness, or its own individual past. It felt lazy, unloved, and very, very, boring. There is simply no sense of place.

The National Trust are taking on new properties in Wales, and I am a little afraid for them if I’m honest. Some National Trust properties are amazing – they have a strong, individual identity, and you come away educated and entertained, and if they’re really doing it right, you can come away with an affection for the place. But then you get a house like this, and you leave caring less about it than before you knew it was there. It’s all very well keeping your visitor numbers up and preserving a building immaculately, but what’s the point if it’s got no soul? For the National Trust to get an historic house (their Welsh headquarters, no less!) so very, very wrong is horrifying.

(As an aside, the grounds and the castle are fabulous to wander around (and they are outside the pay barrier), and they have some really weird-lookin’ cows. makes a nice change from sheep in this part of the world.)

  1. Hi Laura, We (Mencap) have a long association with Dinefwr Park so it it interesting to read your thoughts on what they have done with Newton House. They occasionally lend us rooms in the house for events & a colleague recently married there. Have you passed on your thoughts to them? We were lucky enough to have a personal tour through the servants quarters when they first opened but have taken the girls back since and agree they are a bit soulless.
    Lotsa love, your cousin Claire

    • I did make my feelings known in the visitor survey, yes. Soulless is absolutely the word – very worrying for Tredegar House and Duffryn Gardens. It’s hit and miss – some properties are brilliant, and others are just…blah. Or worse.

  2. My main worry about the NT takeover is that idea of sanitising the place. The bland uniformity that seems to infect some of the NT properties. Hopefully, that won’t be the case at Tredegar House.

  3. This post fills me with the utmost trepidation. There has clearly been no single coherent strategy for interpretation, leading to the tangled mess you describe, The actual restoration of the fabric of the building has been superb. No doubt about it. But, again, I worry about how they have treated the actual history of the place. Not a GREAT sign for Tredegar House, although every project is different. ‘Hands-on’ does not equate to ‘atmospheric’ and that ghastly room full of graphic panels is utterly depressing.

    It takes a bit of imagination to bring an historic place to life. Just a bit of imagination.

    Good, honest, review, Laura.

  4. […] really well in completely different environments. It’s telling that all the National Trust’s hopelessly wide-of-the-mark “hands-on houses” seem to be in-house […]

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