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National Trust boss says she received death threats amid ‘awake’ brawl

The head of the National Trust has said she has received anonymous death threats during a “culture war” feud over the organization’s alleged “wakefulness”.

Hilary McGrady, the director general of the NT, said she had not reported the harassment to the police because “it belongs to the territory”.

The feud was fueled by NT efforts to learn about the history of its properties, including a report published last year that found links between 93 of its historic sites and colonialism and slavery.

Criticism of what some saw as a politicized attack on heritage spread across social media and the press. McGrady said the academic author of the report “had it much harder” than she did.

More recently, a group calling itself the Restore Trust attempted to win seats on the NT’s board of directors at its annual general meeting in October. The group claimed to represent grassroots opposition to what it characterized as the NT’s “awakened” agenda, saying it wanted to steer confidence “back to its core purpose of caring for our heritage and countryside.”

Three of Restore Trust’s candidates were elected to the 36-seat council, although one has denied endorsing the group’s concerns.

McGrady said she suspected Restore Trust would continue its campaign despite the six councilors’ target not being met.

“I would like to have an honest and open conversation with them. What doesn’t help is a war of words. I’m really up for those conversations… I have to accept that I can’t lead an organization of this size and take on these challenges. It’s part of the territory and I’m pretty optimistic about that,” she said.

Some members and visitors were “really angry and mad at us” about the issues raised by Restore Trust, she said. “There were also people very happy and relieved that we are finally looking at the history they want to learn.”

Hilary McGrady. Photo: Rex/Shutterstock

McGrady said the past two years had been difficult for the NT, but there was “a sense of being able to draw a line” despite concerns about the Omicron variant of Covid.

There has been a “huge jump” in membership in recent months, she said. The NT was on the brink of reaching 6 million members when the pandemic hit. “We’ve lost a lot of people for all sorts of reasons — financial concerns or just because we knew they wouldn’t be able to use their membership — but I think we’ll be back at six million next year,” she said.

The trust has ambitious plans for 2022, including picnics, parties, beacon lighting and tree planting to mark the Queen’s platinum anniversary, and a Beatrix Potter exhibition in partnership with the V&A in London.

It has also set a target to be net zero by 2030. “As a very important landowner, we have a big role to play in addressing climate damage,” McGrady said. The trust aims to convert 10% of its 250,000 hectares of land into “natural rich”, planting 20 million trees this decade.

The NT plans to report published last year detailing connections between 93 of its properties and colonialism and historical slavery.

“Every day we discover a new piece of history. We have a duty to tell this vast, complex, layered story of the history of the three countries for which we are responsible. The idea that history stands still is nonsense because you keep discovering new things.”

McGrady said the 2020 report was “investigation in the first phase. The next step is, property for property, to [ask if] we need to do more research. And how would we weave that into the story so that we get a whole history of the place? It will take a long time, to be honest.”

She insisted: “No one is forcing you to push this down your throat. No one is trying to make you read this stuff. It makes no sense that we try to preach and certainly not judge. We try to provide layers of information; we don’t take anything away. We increase the complexity of the available information. But if [people] want to come by and walk through the garden and drink a delicious cup of tea, that makes me happy. Why should I be prescriptive about how people should interact with the National Trust?”

When McGrady was appointed to lead the NT in 2018, she wanted to make it a “really accessible” organization, she said. “It certainly wasn’t an organization that everyone takes for granted, and it still isn’t. My mission has been to remove any barrier that might stand in the way of someone who feels the trust is there for them.”

That included practical measures such as wheelchair access and audio loops, and ensuring that NT staff reflect “the UK as it is”.

She said membership demographics changed from perceptions of white, middle-class and middle-aged, but “it’s not as diverse as I’d like. And I’m as interested in the socioeconomic split as I am BAME and people with am disabled.”

The organization’s strategy was to reflect the communities it serves, but the community in the South West was very different from the community in Birmingham, she said. “I am very aware that there are different communities across the country that want different things from the trust. I’m really focused on that. How do we make ourselves accessible to the people who want to get in touch with us? But what a long way to go, and I am the first to acknowledge it.”