Securing a future: a comparative study investigating the heritage management of interpretation and visitor experience at historic houses in the East Midlands

Catherine Goddard in Greylees Forest, Sleaford. Picture taken by Alex Goddard

Catherine Goddard in Greylees Forest, Sleaford. Picture taken by Alex Goddard

Downton Abbey, Bleak House and Pemberley: fictitious houses brought to life on screen using real historic houses that as a result receive interest and visitor numbers like never before. Historic houses are welcoming thousands more people through their doors because of their TV stardom, and without paying visitors these houses could not survive. The rising cost of historic properties is crippling without the support of paying customers who fund essential conservation and restoration work. It is becoming more understood that the sheer size and age of these properties makes managing them a mammoth task which sometimes, due to lack of funding, results in houses falling into disrepair

This PhD project aims to engage with three main organisations: the National Trust, Historic Houses Association and English Heritage. The National Trust has taken on the charge of conserving and preserving many historic properties for all to enjoy and has done so successfully for over a hundred years. The Historic Houses Association supports the management of privately owned properties, some of which have remained in a family’s possession for many generations. English Heritage, another successful heritage organisation, is currently under reconstruction from being a government-run establishment to a charity-based organisation like the National Trust. These three organisations and many more are overseen by government-run Historic England and work together with a single unified aim of preserving the nation’s history for all to enjoy, forever.

Visitors enjoy these heritage sites through interpretation which engages, educates and entertains them; but which heritage interpretation methods and approaches are best in terms of creating specific visitor experiences? In light of English Heritage’s transformation, the fierce competition for custom and income and the rising numbers of visitors means now is the time for each property and establishment to reflect and learn from one another. This research continues that of heritage scholars, regarding interpretation and the visitor experience at heritage sites, though focuses solely on historic houses. Selected houses will be visited as part of this study with an aim to engage the public on these issues as well as collecting primary qualitative and quantitative data through interviews, observations and questionnaires.

There are hundreds of historic houses across the country but it was the Elizabethan period that saw houses built as expressions of wealth and power rather than fortresses for war. The Elizabethan age as part of the Tudor period is a well know and highly taught subject in schools that most visitors will have some understanding of. Therefore the selection of houses will be from the Tudor period within the East Midlands as their proximity to one another will aid collecting data and add another comparative element of regional history. Other comparative elements of interpretation will include the portrayal of women’s history, major historical events and literature and film. These houses will also be compared in terms of physical, sensory and intellectual accessibility and the all-important visitor experience.

The point of interest is how each property manages their interpretation and whether or not these approaches can be improved by understanding the heritage management of similar properties with common interpretation themes. The questions to be answered are: what stories do the properties choose to, and not to, tell and why? What are the interpretive approaches? How are they received? Who are the target audiences? How does the interpretation affect visitor experience? Do the properties ‘do what it says on the tin’? Answering these questions will highlight potential changes that each house, and possibly each organisation, can make to offer more successful interpretation, enhancing visitor satisfaction and ultimately encouraging increased visitor numbers in order to survive.


During my English Literature BA (Hons) degree at Bishop Grosseteste University I developed a passion for research and as my interests inclined towards history and heritage I knew I wanted to progress further into academia. After completing my undergraduate degree I stayed on at Bishop Grosseteste to complete a Masters in Heritage Education, where my dissertation on religious tourism interpretation at cathedrals inspired me to address similar issues at stately homes. The Heritage Consortium gave me that opportunity and I am now a PhD student based at Leeds Beckett University with the University of Hull as my secondary institution.

Supervisors: Professor Alison Oram, Leeds Beckett University and Dr Briony McDonagh, University of Hull

Twitter: @CMGoddard90