Interview: National Trust Creative Director, Ivo Dawnay, talks heritage fundamentals, attracting millennial audiences, and technology


9 minute read
Jo Reid

Jo Reid

Chief Executive Officer

Arts & Culture

Sometimes an interview seems cursed.

After missed calls, email threads and wrong numbers, we finally pinned down Ivo Dawnay, Creative Director for the National Trust, for a chat about placemaking projects, how heritage sites can attract younger audiences, and the trouble with technology.

Three minutes in, however, we were interrupted as the shrill squawk of a fire alarm pierced the conversation and we had to evacuate our building. The half an hour chat we had planned turned into ten minutes.

Still, when you’re passionate about placemaking, it’s amazing how much you can cover in that space of time.

Calvium: Hi Ivo. Can you first give us a bit of background about yourself and your work with the National Trust.

Ivo Dawnay: Well, I was initially the Communications Director at the Trust, before becoming London Director where I designed a programme known as The London Project. It concluded that the Trust needed to engage with Londoners in many innovative ways, but especially away from our property estate in various ways.

We learned that there is a huge appetite among London audiences for anything that appears new and unusual. Build it and they will come. Our target audience was 20-35-year-olds which is not a traditional audience for us. I spearheaded a project about engaging with people in innovative ways in London.

After that, I was deployed more generally across the Trust’s estate, to look for new ways of engaging audiences who we don’t usually talk to, or are not a priority in the normal run of things. That’s when I became Creative Director.

C: What is the motivation behind your work – both personally, and for the Trust?

ID: The motivation for the National Trust is in engaging new audiences. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, London is the area with lowest National Trust membership in the UK. There are many reasons for that – not least that we don’t have a lot of properties in London – but also London has a very transient population, and significant non-British population. So, I was left with the challenge of how you engage with those populations, and also with the question of younger people.

London is significantly younger than this the average cross section of any other UK location. My challenge was “how do you talk to young liberal cosmopolitan urbanites?” That’s how I ended up getting to know you guys, of course. One of my first projects was to create a Soho Stories app, which you were heavily involved with.

C: Engaging a younger demographic is a massive challenge for all heritage sites isn’t it?

ID: Well yes, the Trust has never been very good at attracting young people. In my experience, people generally visit the National Trust about four times in their lives.

The first when you’re about four, probably in the company of your grandparents who want to take you somewhere safe for your afternoon walk. Then you do it again when you’ve got a four-year-old yourself, and then you maybe do it again without a four-year-old, when you’re 50 and your four-year-old is now 24. Then when you’re 70 you do it again with the grandchildren.

So, it’s never been good for 20-35-year-olds, but I think it can be.

You’ve got to rejig the concept and have stuff which younger people are interested in. Something to do with history of music or popular music, for instance, would be better at catching their interest. You do really have to tailor the content for the audience, I think.

C: And you briefly touched on the non-British population in London. That seems like an area where apps could really come into their own – helping tell the story of a place from multiple aspects and for multiple cultures. To what extent are non-British communities a priority for the Trust?

ID: For the Trust, it is far, far easier to recruit new members – one of our principal sources of income – from long-term UK residents as these are people most likely to visit on a frequent basis. So ethnic origin or place of birth is of far less importance than length of residence in the UK. The truth is, as a general rule, people on short contracts to work in the UK – many of whom live in London – are hard to reach. That is not to say all are – many French residents in London love their NT membership. But the lower hanging fruit are obviously those with a long-term future in the UK. Of course, we need to reach more of the BME resident community and considerable effort is going in to doing so.

C: You have a reputation of going against the grain somewhat, with some of the projects you’ve worked on. Can you talk about them, and why they worked?

ID: Well, we’ve certainly explored what you might call non-traditional exhibitions. The National Trust’s core demographic is the older generation, but it’s not because younger audiences aren’t interested in heritage. They absolutely are – but they’re interested in more recent heritage, particularly 20th century.

So, one of the projects I did was to open the Big Brother House, the studio at Elstree, to the public. While it was seen as a deliberate provocation and a bit of a joke, which it was in some respect, it also tried to make a point. We asked ourselves, fundamentally, why do people want to visit National Trust houses?

Well, there are three reasons. One is to see what they look like, another is to learn something about the people who lived there, and the third reason is to educate yourself a little bit about the era that they represent. Big Brother did that in spades.

The house itself is vulgar looking, but it’s had a big influence on the high street. As for the people who lived there, none of them were famous before they went in there, but Big Brother turned them into household names; people were interested in them. And whether you enjoyed the show or not, it is undeniably culturally relevant: the birthplace of reality television in the UK and the democratisation of celebrity. So it says a lot about the first decade of the 21st century.  

Subsequently, we opened the Balfron Tower – a council house tower block in East London built by the famous Hungarian modernist architect, Ernö Goldfinger. I think that’s the first time a council flat has ever been opened to the public.

We were overwhelmed with interest for both the Big Brother house and for Balfron. There was a market there, and it was a much younger market of people who were actually very interested in heritage, but less in aristocratic houses from the 18th century and more in contemporary stuff.

Then last year, we went on to look at a whole borough with Edge City: Croydon. Croydon is, in the nicest possible way, a pretty nondescript suburb, but you can find stories and history anywhere. So again, we were overwhelmed with people who wanted to come and see Croydon and be guided round it by us. The point is, we were trying to expand the remit of the Trust beyond what might be described as the traditional National Trust visit.

C: It’s interesting you haven’t mentioned technology at all. When most people think about engaging a younger audience, the conversation tends to start with new technology. So, does that play a role in your thinking or is it more of a back up to the big idea?

ID: Well in truth we [The National Trust] are slightly conflicted about it. We want to give people authentic experiences, and with apps or anything to do with mobile….well, if you put a layer of technology between the person and the subject they’re engaged in, it’s another barrier to the real experience.

I’ve been offered very interesting technology over the years. I remember there was a clever Israeli firm who approached me about being able to hold up your phone to a work of art, and the app, much like Shazam does with music, could tell you what else they’d painted, what gallery the piece was kept, and show you a dozen other pictures by the same artists. It was fantastically clever, but to use it you have to spend your time staring at your phone.

For the National Trust, we really would prefer people not staring at screens. For our particular purposes, we much prefer that people get an opportunity to actually look at whatever they’re looking at for themselves, rather than have it presented to them through a third party.

What was brilliant about the Soho Stories app was that we told the story without the screen. We told about 50 stories of various locations in Soho, using GPS to identify the location and then talking to the listener, through a phone, about that place, in an interesting and engaging way. The technology really worked there.  

The use of sound rather than the visual added to and enhanced your personal experience rather than distracted you from it.  

C: We’re interested in the challenge of getting young people to older heritage sites. You mentioned opening up new heritage sites like the Big Brother house, and these are great ‘pop-up’ events. But what about long-standing, well-established sites? Is there anything they can do to try and encourage younger visitors?

ID: Well, I’m currently working on a kind of literary festival without books at Mount Stewart, which is one of our properties in Northern Ireland. The place was famous for having house parties full of fashionable society people, politicians, artists, writers and people of that kind.

We’ve just spent a lot of money doing it up and putting it back to the way it was in the 1930s, so I’ve invented this thing called the Mount Stewart Conversations. We get a lot of contemporary fashionable people – politicians, artists and the like – to come and have conversations about current affairs or big issues or whatever interests the audiences. So, we’re reinventing the country house weekend in a way, but doing it in front of an audience for the public.

It’s all about finding the story, and approaching it in a different way.

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