Prague was my destination this week. And what a precious place it is! Even more so as the location of the ‘Our heritage: Forever for everyone‘ conference marking the fifth anniversary of the Czech National Trust. The event took place at the Stahov Monastery which was a fittingly beautiful location to discuss the future of Czech heritage.
I’ve been involved in the Czech National Trust since the very beginning so it was an honour to address the invited audience. It was particularly nice that INTO members were able to join us. Tim Parker, Chairman of the National Trust (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) and Patrice Simmonet of FAI – Fondo Ambiente Italiano both also spoke. And Kulturerbe Bayern and the National Trust of Slovakia were in the audience.
It was equally wonderful to welcome friends from Historic Houses and English Heritage to Prague. And we all enjoyed some amazing treats, organised by our hosts alongside the conference.
On Wednesday morning, architectural historian Irena Žantovský-Murray showed us hidden gems in Prague. These included the fabulous Art Nouveau Municipal House, the Cubist House of the Black Madonna and the Lucerna Dance Hall, restituted to the Havel family in the 1990s. The highlight of the tour was meeting Prince William Lobkowitz at Prague Castle. We then all enjoyed a delicious lunch with the British Ambassador.
I much enjoyed spending time with our Czech, UK and European colleagues: Learning more about their work and sharing perspectives on the future for heritage in the Czech Republic.
What struck me about the visit was firstly the many achievements of the Czech National Trust. Just to put on the Conference was a feat in itself! And the more they told us about their projects in Prague, Rožmitál and Kroměříž, the more impressed I was! (The last two, you can even get involved in yourselves through our Working Holidays programme!)
It has clearly not been easy, but the Czech National Trust is carving out a niche for itself. President, Irena Edwards, sees its role as filling the gaps between the state heritage sector and the private developers. We heard a lot from the latter during the Conference and what they have achieved is brave and impressive. From turning an old factory into a thriving performance space to transforming a whole town through sensitive redevelopment projects. And often funded by themselves.
The National Trust model, first set out in Victorian England, has evolved and been adapted to suit particular local circumstances. Some are large, long established organisations with large memberships and strong public support. Others are small or new organisations running almost entirely on voluntary energy and doing their best simply to get heritage ideas on the agenda. And all shapes and sizes in between, including some that are closely allied to Governments And others that are fiercely independent and highly critical of official action, or indeed inaction.
Although INTO members are all very different, the things that concern us are basically the same, wherever we are in the world. We all face the challenges posed by climate change, unsustainable development, reduced funding and lack of public engagement. We all seek to grow skills, increase participation and stay relevant by ensuring that the heritage we preserve fully reflects the communities we serve.
And this is true in the Czech Republic too. The Czech National Trust many never own huge numbers of country houses. But it will continue to work with people and communities to protect irreplaceable heritage: For ever, and for the benefit of everyone. And we will continue to help them do just that! The conference programme can be downloaded here. My speech notes are here. And you can listen to more about our the Czech National Trust’s work and our trip to Prague here.
At the weekend, I took the children and my mother to Mottisfont Abbey. We had a wonderful day, enjoying the last of the roses and the shady chalk streams on a hot afternoon. But it was actually our trip to Marwell that I wanted to tell you about. Marwell Hall is a Grade 1 listed house where, apparently Henry VIII married Jane Seymour in the 1500s.
Now a thriving wildlife park, at some point its owners must have wondered what the future held for the property. I wonder whether they contemplated giving the house and estate it to the National Trust? In any case, the solution – a zoo – has delivered in spades. Marwell’s mission is to conserve biodiversity and other natural resources, both locally and internationally. And it does just that. Moreover it goes to show that there is not always just one answer to the question of what to do with a country house!