Designing the past: the National Trust as a social-material agency

This source preferred by Dorothy Fox

Authors: Fox, D., Johnston, N. and Wallace, S.

Editors: Glynne, J., Hackney, F. and Minton, V.

Pages: 164-168

Publisher: Universal Publishers

Place of Publication: Boca Raton, FLA, USA

ISBN: 978-1599429069

The National Trust was founded in 1895 for ‘the preservation of places of historic interest or natural beauty’. While the distinction between the cultural and the natural seemed obvious at that time and members and visitors were not even implicated actors, we argue that the National Trust may be better understood as a co-constructed network effect of the social and material, which in turn affords social-material agency. There are currently 3.5 million members of the National Trust and 50 million visitors every year to National Trust properties, which include the largest collection of gardens in the world and over 300 historic houses and open-air properties.

While the notion of design itself may seem to be an exemplar of the humanist love of agency, we argue (following Latour) that traditional notions of agency, which were asymmetrically distributed to the human actors, take insufficient cognisance of evident occasions of ‘material agency’ (Pickering, 1995) and the site of conservation is one site whereby the agency produced by social-material assemblages seems interesting and revealing.

Whereas the social-material practices of design may seem in some tension with those of conservation, we argue in this paper that a close analysis of a particular site of conservation shows a manifold of ‘designing’ actors. Whatever the National Trust conserves could be considered as an example of particular and situated designs condensed from the interactions of humankind and nature. Similarly the visitor experience is also designed. While conservation can imply a certain social-material agency, it is much less well understood how conservation co-produces agency, and how these network effects serve the purposes of conservation by the Trust, visitors and other actors through the agency of the social and material. This paper will reveal some of the social-material practices which afford a visit to a property and what such visits afford the social-material practices of the National Trust.

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