Big Brother House opened by the National Trust – but what are the consequences?

Several newspapers and television reports have recently ran articles about how the Big Brother House (which, since 2002, has been a plot within the Elstree Studio complex in Hertfordshire), is going to be opened by the National Trust.
Item in the Daily Mail:
Item in the Guardian:
Item on the National Trust website:

While the former MP and Strictly Come Dancing contestant, Anne Widdecombe, has (somewhat ironically) been ‘saddened’ by this ‘tawdry’ and ‘celebrity-obsessed’ venture, the 500 tickets were sold out within 12 minutes of becoming available. What does this say about the National Trust? What does this indicate about how we should understand ‘heritage’? And what are the consequences for how we should approach heritage issues?
In terms of understanding the National Trust, this move is interesting in the way that it reflects the Trust’s recent and on-going rethinking of its core mission statement – to care for and open up places of historic interest for the benefit of ‘the nation’. Some commentators have criticised what they see as a ‘populist move’ on the part of the Trust, but in doing so, fail to recognise the contradiction of their critique: if the National Trust have the benefit of ‘the nation’ at the heart of their foundational mission, then it is difficult to criticise them for being ‘populist’. Rather, the move reflects a broadening of who counts, in terms of valuing and displaying what is deemed to be ‘heritage’. Such a move away from elite cultures, and a broadening of what the Trust is about certainly seems to be at the centre of the various National Trust comments, as reported in the media: “Our role is to talk about spaces that are special to people”; we need to “find innovative new ways the trust can engage with urban audiences, particularly with younger audiences”.

In terms of our understanding of heritage, such a move suggests that while ‘the nation’ appears to remain a central container, or ‘lens’ through which heritage is produced, practised and consumed, it is at least a nation that is more plural, open, and emergent than many traditional heritage narratives tend to maintain. Indeed, as Ivo Dawney (National Trust spokesperson, quoted in The Guardian) argues “I would like to see us much more present in cities[. …] That won’t always mean acquiring things; it will mean doing things. […] We can’t just be for the benefit of a certain chunk of the nation, which tends to be older”. On the one hand, therefore, the perceived locus for the nation’s heritage is shifted away from both supposedly stable rurality and also from the perceived interests of older people. On the other hand, the evocation that what is really important for the Trust is not the “acquiring of”, but the “doing of” things, suggests an important philosophical move on the part of the National Trust, away from seeing heritage merely as physical ‘stuff’ (to be preserved in aspic), and to include intangible, open-ended and mobile senses of heritage: in other words, a processual view of heritage.
What are the consequences of this episode for how we should approach heritage issues? In my reading of the various newspaper items and media articles about the National Trust’s dealings with the Big Brother house, the element that has really stuck out is that the whole event is temporary: that the National Trust are going to open the Big Brother house for just a few days. While I find the whole thing very refreshing and positive in terms what the National Trust does; who it is for; and in terms of how they are actively re-thinking the definition of heritage – and the nation – my ‘take home message’ is that it should prompt all of us to rethink heritage away from being seen as something that is once-and-for-all-times. If the National Trust recognises the heritage surrounding Big Brother House as something that is temporary, so it can perhaps also do likewise for some of its stately homes and other articles of ‘elite culture’.
In a recent article in the International Journal of Heritage Studies, Rodney Harrison points to the need for an open debate about ‘decommissioning’ heritage. I am not calling for the immediate demolition of Stonehenge, St. Michael’s Mount, or Chartwell House(!), but rather call for a recognition that any analysis of heritage requires some consideration of ephemerality, the fluidity of meaning and to recognise the future-orientation of all elements of heritage.


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