The British country house: family home or public cultural asset? Glorious exemplar of historic taste or contested site of public history? A visually enthralling historic stage set, or a site to inform understanding of our national histories?

There are millions of visits to country houses every year in the UK, and recent events have demonstrated how the public country house is emerging as a new front line of public history. In England the Country House Scheme, first established in the 1930s by Lord Lothian, has allowed many of the most significant country houses and their estates to transfer ownership to the National Trust through acceptance in lieu of taxation. This has meant that in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, country houses – sometimes with their collections – could be saved for the nation to enjoy as a ‘treasure of quiet beauty’. Nearly ninety years on, the research landscape surrounding country houses has transformed, encompassing topics beyond questions of patronage, the histories of interior taste and style, to also address collective histories of people and place, and local, regional, national and global histories and object provenance.

The country house is no longer only a unique index of aristocratic or elite artistic and architectural taste over time, it is also a living cultural resource for its increasingly diverse audiences. How are these multi-layered sites – at once former and present family homes, public museums, heritage attractions, and exemplars of global exchange networks in microcosm – curated, presented and interpreted in the present? What does this shift and the accompanying research mean for the way these sites present and interpret their houses, gardens and collections? And what might the country house of the future look like?

Taking place online and at the V&A South Kensington on 16th and 17th May 2024, this two-day conference explores what role the country house plays in our national understanding of social and global histories, art and culture, and the axes of change around which such sites are turning, including diverse audience expectation, the climate crisis, and national historical narratives. The conference will focus on public country houses: i.e. those owned, opened, and managed by charitable organisations with an obligation to provide public benefit.

The public country house: ‘Treasure of quiet beauty’ or a site for public histories? will bring together an international community of colleagues working across heritage, museums, arts & culture, and academia to explore the past, present, and potential future/s of the country house. Through panels, roundtable discussions, and creative interventions, together we will map the barriers to presentation and interpretation in publicly accessible country houses, share ideas and examples of innovative curatorial and interpretative practice internationally, and develop tools and methodologies for change that cut across disciplinary boundaries.

This conference is part of ‘Private’ spaces for public benefit? Historic houses as sites for research and knowledge exchange innovation, a collaborative project led by the V&A and the National Trust. The project is generously supported by a British Academy Innovation Fellowship Award.