The National Trust is reaching out to minority communities, reports Jo Ind.

It is not hard to see why the National Trust has been perceived as an organisation for the white middle classes.

The charity protects Britain’s national treasures – normally the homes of the aristocracy. It is small wonder that the people who have been most interested in that are those who are most connected to the tales of the English elite.

To date fewer than one per cent of the members of the National Trust have been people from black and minority ethnic communities.

This is a matter that the National Trust in the West Midlands has taken into its hands. Two years ago, it started a project called Whose Story? which aimed to unveil the previously untold stories, hidden histories and cultural heritage links within its buildings.

The catchline of the National Trust is “forever, for everyone” and so the aim of the project was to inspire and capture the interest of people from black and minority ethnic communities. As the year turns, it has the opportunity to reflect on progress of the project and launch its events for the coming year.

“It has definitely been a success,” says Sajida Aslam, audience development manager for the National Trust in the West Midlands.

“The outreach office has been going out to communities and talking to people. They have found that people have been saying ‘What’s the National Trust got to do with me? We don’t know anything about it. But then when they hear what it’s about, they say they would love to be involved. The response has been incredibly positive.”

With the support of money from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Trust in the West Midlands has focused on four of its properties – the Back to Backs in Birmingham, Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton, Charlecote Park in Warwickshire and Croome Park in Worcestershire.

The Back to Back properties in Birmingham were chosen because of the high level of immigration to the inner city and the diversity of people who lived in houses of that kind.

The story of the houses is a story of hardship and so has been an opportunity for story tellers to tell the tales of the working classes from many different ethnicities who lives in the surrounding areas.

“There are stories of people from all around the world and their migration histories in those Back to Backs,” says Sajida. “Through the story telling projects we have been able to make the connections with the working classes and how that relates to other groups of people even if they aren’t represented in the Back to Backs themselves.” Those stories are particularly pertinent to people from Ireland and the Caribbean.

At Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton, there has been a tea party with a twist, celebrated by the local group African Caribbean Community Initiative.

There are many similarities between the herbs and spices of Wightwick Manor’s kitchen garden and those grown for culinary and medicinal purposes in the Caribbean so volunteers from ACCI have helped to create a Caribbean herb garden at the property.

Icilda Buckley was one of the first Whose Story? volunteers to come forward and offer support in April last year.

Since then she has been instrumental in the creation of the garden.

Icilda said: “I became an enthusiastic home gardener back in 1985 and have since expanded my knowledge of organic gardening. I always felt that I wanted to share this love and fortunately I now have the privilege of being part of the Whose Story? project, as a volunteer gardener.”

Glenis Williams, outreach officer for the Whose Story? project, said: “Icilda has been great and it has been a real asset having her on board. She is a keen gardener and has a large garden at home, as well as an allotment, so has a wealth of knowledge which she is happy to pass on. Icilda has become very much at home at Wightwick Manor and enjoys not only working on the Whose Story? projects, but spends time working with the Victorian Kitchen Garden volunteers.”

Another event at the Manor has been the working in partnership with Ulfah Arts to create a faith trail which explores the parallels between the Koran, heritage and nature. Two Indian princesses lived at Wightwick Manor because they were married to Lionel and Alan Mander who lived there.

At Charlcote Park in Warwickshire the family had links with the West Indies and with India and brought many artefacts back from these places. Those artefacts have been the springboard for story-telling events and puppetry. In July of this year children from Kingsway Community Primary School were invited to take part in a series of workshops exploring Sikh faith, customs and heritage through storytelling, puppetry and participatory arts through looking at two Asian Miniatures and a Jewelled Ceremonial Sword which dates from the 18th Century.

At Croome Park in Worcester, there are plants from around the world.

“This has been a really good link to work with people, “ says Sajida.

“There are hidden histories within those four programmes. Our job has been to bring those histories out. The National Trust already knew about these histories but this project has given us more scope to really explore them.

“The two princess at Wightwick Manor, gave us the opportunity to explore all those cultural links. These are the things that people are interested in. It’s refreshing. It’s giving us more to offer people. It’s not just of interest to those from a Black and minority ethnic background but to traditional national trust supporters as well.”

More activities are planned for next year. The Back to Back project will be exploring its relationship with the GKN factory. At Charlecote Park on National Poetry day there will be “100 Verses” inspired by the cultural connections in the house and parklands and a heritage trail to discover hidden treasures from around the world.

At Croome Park there will be a celebration of Hare Krishna’s presence there and at Wightwick Manor there will be an Indian summer on the South Terrace exploring family histories, Indian princesses and interconnecting people and places.

Sajida says it is too early to say if the initiatives have resulted in increased membership from people of a Black and minority ethnic background.

“We do know that momentum has been gathered and that a really positive word is getting about. The great thing about this is that we’re doing it is that it’s a holistic piece of work, not a bolt on. We are aiming for the stories that are being revealed through the National Trust to give us much richer picture of what exists at the property and we will be all the more whole for it.”