Thames Valley Country House Partnership

Thames Valley Country House Partnership

Oxford-SoR-IntroNot so long ago a visit to a historic house might not have come with high expectations. Granted, the building and its setting would be impressive, so too its contents.

But too often the story of the place – of the people who made it tick, of the events it witnessed, of the sheer pulsing life within its walls – was untold. Chances are that the hum of chatter in the tea shop would have been focused on last night’s TV, rather than what visitors had just seen and done.

Today, thanks to a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) between the National Trust and the University of Oxford, visitors to Trust properties in London and the South East will have richer, more engaging experiences. “We’re helping National Trust experts to bring the heritage of these wonderful places alive,” says Dr Oliver Cox, historian and Knowledge Exchange Fellow in the Humanities Division at the University of Oxford. “People are now staying longer at heritage attractions and engaging in a much more meaningful way with them.”

In January 2013, Dr Cox set up the Thames Valley Country House Partnership (TVCHP), a Higher Education Innovation Fund-supported initiative that creates sustainable relationships between country houses and the University of Oxford. Based at TORCH, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, the partnership links researchers in the University of Oxford with external partners from the heritage sector in the Thames Valley.

“Our core aim is to harness the top-level academic research undertaken at Oxford in a way that will increase visitors to country houses,” explains Dr Cox. “The KTP is one way for our National Trust partners to use our research in a practical, hands-on way by creating attractions, planning exhibitions, events, and improving web content to showcase the dynamism of our heritage. This isn’t a fusty parade of relics from the past – heritage is a narrative that’s as relevant today as anything else.”

By working with local communities, country house owners and managers, as well as volunteers and academics, the TVCHP uncovers the social, economic, political and cultural lives of the people who lived in the houses. “We bring them to light and give contemporary meaning to the National Trust’s properties, and members of the Historic Houses Association, including Blenheim Palace, Broughton Castle, Compton Verney, Highclere Castle and Kelmscott Manor,” says Dr Cox.

Better yet, the TVCHP comes with a hefty dose of talent development. “We encourage our academics to think about the commercial applicability of their research,” says Dr Cox. “It’s a light touch approach – one that fosters their sense of story-telling.” This has a knock-on effect on the many volunteers who give up their time to work for the Trust: “They’re so much more involved now – they relish the direct access to Oxford’s research.”

The net result is that country houses mean business. They are more sustainable, visitor numbers are up, and so too is Trust membership. Oh, and that hum of noise in the tea shop? These days it’ll be visitors who’ve stayed so long that they need a refill – and they’re probably talking to volunteers about what they’ve just seen.

“We’re very excited about this partnership with the humanities academics at Oxford University – their research will help us enrich and add depth to the stories we can tell about the special places in our care.”

Alison Evans, National Trust’s Assistant Director of Operations in London and the South-East

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