Along with about half of Lincolnshire we went to Belton House, just outside of Grantham yesterday. Since joining the National Trust at the end of February I think we've visited enough places to have more or less recouped the cost of membership, and to get an idea of how the NT are currently interested in presenting our heritage.
Choosing the first really warm weekend of the year to visit somewhere like Belton wasn't a particularly smart choice if you wanted to concentrate on the architecture and interiors because whilst Belton is big, it's not huge, and a lot of the rooms confine you to walkways which don't give you much time or space on a busy day to stop and look at the details. The extensive parkland, formal gardens, and adventure playground, along with decent cafe, toilet provision, and space for picnics made it an excellent choice if you just wanted to be out in the sun somewhere nice, especially if you have young children to entertain and a dog to walk.
Belton is a treasure house, from its beautifully proportioned, golden stoned exterior through its mostly beautifully proportioned (shoehorning some bathrooms into an old house isn't always an easy job) interiors full of some really good painting, china, and furniture, and the grounds that set it off the whole thing is a jewel. It's also a particularly good example of the tensions between the different aims of the Trust.
The first of these has to be the 'For Ever, For Everyone' mission statement, because it's not cheap to visit if your not a member (£15 something for house and grounds, £12 just for grounds per adult) and whilst membership is good value if you make a point of using it, it's also a luxury that's going to be out of reach for many. If you want it to be forever you need the money, but then it's not really for everyone.
How the priorities of those visiting Belton are juggled is more or less successful - entry to the house is timed and pre booking is recommended. There's no set route around the house so you can choose your own direction and both of these things should help avoid overcrowding or bottlenecks of people.
More problematic is the changing focus of the way the house is presented from year to year. This year the NT are focusing on women. At Belton that means 'Giving a voice to four dynamic characters' creative women who have left their mark. These are Sophia Cust (watercolours) and Florence Woolward (Florence was a botanical artist), Marian Alford (embroidery), and Nina Cust (Sculpture). There's a board that explains this - after you have left the house. Marian Alford's embroidery is exquisite, unfortunately there's no information about it in the house, nothing in the display cases, and it wasn't possible to get near a room warden to ask questions. The same for Nina Cust's work.
The dining room currently has a large instillation by Bouke de Vries called 'War and Peices' which has got lots of information to back it up, which only highlights how badly served the 4 women are. There's also a general shortage of the folders (which were falling apart anyway, and might well have been replaced over the winter) that explain what the pictures are, and because I guess nobody wants to write a new guide book every year the guide book isn't tremendously helpful. It's good on the history of the family, and some of the physical changes to the house, devotes a few pages to bits of the collection not currently on display, but says very little about the actual rooms and what's in them.