Articles from the Thoroton Society Newsletter

Newstead Abbey - the Future

A paper presented by Alexis Chema to a meeting at Newstead Abbey on 5 August 2013.

The meeting was a follow-up to an earlier one whose purpose was to discuss the formation of a ‘Friends of Newstead Abbey’group. The meetings were co-ordinated by the World Monuments Fund.

ALEXIS CHEMA is an American student at Yale University who was visiting the U.K. to study and research historic environments. Alexis’ paper is reproduced here in full and contains some interesting observations and suggestions for the future of Newstead Abbey. At the meeting a steering committee was formed to take forward the Friends Group project and it is understood that a first meeting of the Steering Committee has been held. We look forward with anticipation for further information when available.

For the past couple of months I’ve been working with the staff of the WMF and Newstead in the capacity of researcher and consultant with the aim of helping contribute to a vision for Newstead that will give a rationale to how the site is developed in order to best present its most important features.

I’m here to share with you some of my observations, assessment, and some general recommendations about how to unlock the very great potential that I believe Newstead has.

Before coming to Newstead I spent some time visiting other literary and historic houses to observe the different ways that they presented their sites, and their strategies for interpreting their materials and engaging visitors. I wanted to find out what worked and what didn’t, and under what circumstances. What can Newstead learn from techniques already in place elsewhere?

And these experiences did give me lots of ideas about interpretive procedures that improve or detract from a visit. But the most important thing I took away was something bigger and more general: a conviction that a successful site is essentially aspirational: it aspires to do something important, to teach, to open up the world, it believes in its own relevance and makes it part of its mission that its visitors leave believing too.

Jeff Cowton, the curator at the Wordsworth Trust, which runs Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum and collections in the Lake District, put it this way: it’s no longer enough to be a place of pilgrimage, we’ve had to become a place of discovery.

This has become something of a mantra to me since then. Now, there are choices and decisions to be made when it comes to the future of Newstead and what it should look like, but I believe very strongly that a vision for Newstead ought to be guided by this principle: more than a pilgrimage, a discovery.

When Jeff said this to me we were talking about a decision the Trust made in the 1980s to signifcantly transform the site for the first time in decades from a humble historic cottage with a small museum attached with a display about Wordsworth that had been there for years, to the world-class center for studying and learning about Wordsworthian Romanticism that it is today.

Already in the 1980s the great age of literary pilgrimage was over. Now, as you all know, Newstead still stands today largely thanks to how powerful the literary pilgrimage impulse was culturally in the 19th century. But, as you all also know, precious few are the contemporary visitors who come to Newstead to see the view Byron describes in the 13th canto of Don Juan, or to stand in the room where he and his friends passed around the skull cup dressed in monks’ robes.

This shift away from literary pilgrimage has deeply impacted Newstead’s self-identity. For some time Newstead has been standing at this crossroad. For better or for worse the way things worked in the past won’t work anymore—that much, at least, seems clear. But what can be done instead? So far it’s a question that has yet to be answered satisfactorily. And as long as Newstead’s self-identity and sense of cultural value are uncertain, so will its future be uncertain.

So, here we all are together, at the crossroad. At the crossroad you can get lost, or stand still for a long time trying to make a decision, but crossroads are uniquely energized with opportunity, as well. From my vantage point I see two paths stretched before us, each representing an alternative “way forward” for Newstead. I’ll sketch them.

The first sees Newstead adapting to be “about” lots of other things besides or in addition to the association with Byron, and developing a number of these features simultaneously, evenly and without too much reference to one another. This is the path of site diversifcation. There are things to recommend this “way forward”: Newstead does have a lot of different kinds of attractions to offer—there really is something here for everyone. Also, developing in this direction doesn’t require signifcant conceptual changes: this is more or less how a visitor experiences the site right now.

Ultimately, though, I believe that Newstead has every reason to have far greater ambitions. In order to make the most of the opportunities Newstead presents it must establish a strong and coherent identity that the “site diversification” model simply can’t supply.

To that end my recommendations are oriented toward recognizing and celebrating the association with Byron as a foundation of Newstead’s identity. After all, Newstead’s “literary riches” and associations are deeply important—to use the language of the 2006 conservation plan, “Newstead Abbey is considered to be of international signifcance because of its association with the Poet Byron, a major literary figure, an icon for the Romantic movement in Europe, America, and beyond, and a key figure in the struggle for Greek independence.”

Furthermore it’s worth noting that in spite of his important contributions to literature and culture, no museum and center of learning about Byron currently exists.

So, the vision for Newstead that I recommend would combine the attitude and aim of promoting exploration, discovery, inspiration, and creativity, with the subject of Byron’s life, writings, and impact.

And just to be clear: using Byron to focus Newstead’s identity need not be at the expense of sensitive appreciation of other signifcant aspects of Newstead. These aspects, in particular its architecture and architectural history and its formal and landscape gardens, can be appreciated independently and, uniquely at this site, in relation to its particular signifcance in literary and cultural history. Alternatively, the Byron association might serve as an entry-point into exploration of other aspects of the site that are interesting and signifcant in their own right.

I’d like to say a bit more about the opportunity Newstead has to become a place where people discover Byron’s life and writings and their relevance in contemporary culture. What might that look like?

The discovery-based model operates successfully elsewhere. I propose that Newstead look to the Wordsworth Trust and the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Ayrshire, Scotland, for examples. These 2 exceptionally-managed sites demonstrate the contemporary appeal of well-presented and interpreted “literary historic cultural centers”: since opening in 2010 the Burns Museum has averaged more than 300,000 visitors a year.

I use the somewhat cumbersome and not-quite-right term “literary historic cultural center” because both of these places are, like Newstead, more than literary houses. They both feature period houses alongside museum displays and collections, and use all of these resources to run both educational and contemporary arts programming. Each has a specifc focus and strong identity which it uses diverse means of presenting.

Newstead possesses the potential to join the Wordsworth Trust and the Burns Museum as an internationally-important leader in supporting public beneft through the advancement of education and heritage, culture, and the arts.

This potential has to do with the material strengths of the site and it also has to do with the nature and concerns that we associate with Byron, and that he, then, brings to Newstead.

Byron’s writing is characterized by its heroic ambitions to reinvent the past in order to engage the emerging concerns of the present. In his day Byron saw and presented familiar aspects of the English literary and cultural tradition in fresh ways, in turn inspiring his contemporaries to read, write, and engage in political life with gusto. It would seem only ftting, then, to adapt Byron’s own attitude toward the past and tradition, things his writing has come to represent, to Newstead’s interpretation of its signifcance and goals.

Newstead, I would propose, should focus on telling the story of Byron as a cultural force and should be guided by this dimension of his legacy.

To this end, I would suggest that the following themes be emphasized:

Passion for exploration and adventure

These themes should guide the presentation of Byron and his works, and provide a rationale for the kinds of contemporary arts and culture programming that Newstead should support.

In doing so I would encourage that Byron’s own words be privileged, words from his letters, journals, and poems. This will provide an important means of facilitating discovery.

In addition to historic and literary house and gardens, Newstead has the potential to develop as a center for contemporary thought and creativity. Newstead could bring together writers, artists, and scholars who could share their creative and intellectual pursuits with members of the public through the establishment of a variety of short, medium, and long-term programs. Newstead could house the “Newstead Byron Center for Poetry and Political Life” (or something along those lines), supporting the following:

Such a center would establish a tangible “through-line” connecting past and present and emphasizing the contemporary relevance of Byron and Newstead.

If Newstead’s need for adopting a strong vision for the future is great it is because its potential is also so great. This meeting today and the dedication and talent of all of the people here, and others who couldn’t make it, should give us, I think, good reason to be hopeful.