Conservators and staff looking after historic houses have long cast dust in the role of villain because of the physical damage it is held to cause. Studies carried out by Dr Young Hun Yoon and Professor Peter Brimblecombe of the University of East Anglia at The Sainsbury Centre, the Norwich Castle Museum, and at National Trust, English Heritage and Historic Royal Palace properties, have identified ways of measuring the rate of dust accumulation, and identifying its sources. This work has led to a Leverhulme funded project to investigate the effect of the environment on soiling levels. Apart from the properties of dust itself, an argument often advanced to justify cleaning is the necessity of meeting visitors' expectations of cleanliness. Therefore it seemed important to investigate what visitors actually think of dust.
A brief questionnaire was used as the basis of one-to-one interviews of visitors by room stewards and house staff, who used a form to record the answers. These were carried out at four National Trust properties, three English Heritage properties and one Historic Royal Palace, all co-sponsors of the project. An initial survey was carried out at Kensington Palace, run by Historic Royal Palaces, to test the 6 questions. These were both 'closed', inviting yes/no answers, and 'open', inviting visitors' own views. Initial questions assessed how the visitor judged the care of rooms, leaving questions specifically on dust till later to see whether visitors were aware of dust without being prompted. Around 100 visitors were interviewed per property, in the same room over several weeks, though the time of day varied. Some very basic demographic data was collected to check that the visitors were typical. Light measurements were also collected from each room where the questionnaire was carried out. The responses were analysed in two ways: statistically, or how many responses there were of a certain type; and through contingency analysis, testing whether the response to one question was linked to the response to another. For example, the responses to the question on dust's contribution to a sense of age were compared to those on the need for more cleaning, to see if people who appreciated dust wanted it removed or not.
Prominence equals care
The first question, an open one, was which part of the room needs more care. The number of responses (a visitor could give more than one response to a question) were compared to the room element. By far the majority of visitors thought that the element in need of more care was the most visually prominent feature in the room.
- In a Library it was books, as at Calke;
- in the Drawing Room at Baddesley Clinton near Birmingham it was the red velvet upholstery and extensive carved wood in the form of panelling and the fire surround;
- In the Billiard Room at Lanhydrock in Cornwall, it was the Billiard Table, which is not only wood but is also upholstered in green baize fabric, so combines two materials;
- In the Great Hall at Chastleton in Oxfordshire it was wood, which is prominent in the form of the panelling around the walls and the carved entrance screen.
Drivers for Concern
The second question asked why do you think this part of the room needs such care? Generally the element's inherent fragility and susceptibility to damage prompted the most concern. Visitors, dust, and light were cited as the next most significant causes. Visitors understand certain types of material to be vulnerable to certain types of damage. Dust seems particularly related to wood and textiles, as it was the second largest cause of concern at Baddesley, where wood and textiles were prominent, and also at Lanhydrock, for the wood and textile billiard table. Indeed, at Lanhydrock, the textiles were felt particularly vulnerable to dust, particularly those, such as the Billiard Table or on the floor, which are horizontal. Light damage, rather than dust, was associated with the books felt to be at most risk at Calke, although the leather bound volumes were also thought susceptible to rot. Inherent fragility overwhelmed dust, light and all the other factors, at Chastleton, where the panelling and screen are intricately carved. Woodworm was also cited here as a threat.
Impressions of appearance
The adjectives used by visitors to describe the appearance of the room fell into various groups. On the whole, the most common response was to a room's cosiness and comfort, calling it loved, lived-in, used and homely. Darkness was the next strongest response, but related to the colours of the interior as much as to light levels. In many cases these are dark such as brown (especially where wooden panelling is present) and red (on textiles). The Billiard Room at Lanhydrock was described as both dark and light in the same range of lux levels (between 40 and 180 lux for 'dark', and 30-500 for 'light'). Magnificence elicited a strong response. Perception of the room's historic nature was a relatively low fourth.
Of the other adjectives, perhaps the most intriguing ones, though not numerically significant, are gender related. Masculinity was associated with many of the rooms used, which may relate to the rooms' function, library or billiard room, though Brodsworth's Library managed to be both masculine and feminine!
Houses feel different
Although certain qualities evoked the strongest responses, they varied between properties, which tends to contradict the notion that all houses run by the same organisation look the same. Most properties had a strong response for comfort, particularly Baddesley and Brodsworth. However, the large and sparsely furnished Ranger's House Gallery scored no points for comfort, but is overwhelmingly seen as magnificent. Although historicity was not a particularly strong impression overall, it seems to be particularly powerful at Chastleton. Eltham Palace was unique in its relatively high scores for beauty and being well kept, qualities that were otherwise, perhaps surprisingly rarely recorded.
Dusty Old Houses
Our 4th question was the first to specifically address dust, and was a closed, yes/no, question: Do you think historic houses are in general dusty? On the whole visitors think historic houses are not dusty. Of those who thought historic houses were dusty, more visitors felt this at Chastleton. Moreover, uniquely and unsolicited, 15 visitors volunteered that Chastleton was dusty, even when they felt in 12 of the cases, that historic houses generally weren't dusty. The impression of dust is a delibarate presentation policy at Chastleton.
Smell was sometimes referred to in these responses, through the use of 'musty' rather than 'dusty'. The Tower of London evoked a somewhat different response: relatively few people
answered the question Yes or No. They tended to be rather discursive and say things such as -- well it is old or "low levels of dust OK"
Clean and New Interiors
In addition to Chastleton, a relatively high proportion of visitors to Eltham also thought historic houses were dusty. They also thought the Library beautiful and well kept, as well as comfortable. The interior is a new restoration of Art Deco furnishings, opened only 2 years ago. This style uses shiny pale surfaces, such as cream leather and highly polished wood. A shiny new interior may show dirt more than matte, darker surfaces. This suggests that more visitors seem to think of historic houses as dusty where interiors are extreme examples of either dustiness or cleanliness.
At the Tower, the display is more 'museum' than 'historic house' in style, consisting of display cases and rows of armoured knights on model horses. This may explain why responses here seemed to be based on an expectation of museum-style cleanliness. It is hard to generalise on the exact responses as the questioning style at the Tower was very different to the other properties involved..
A sense of patina
The perception that historic houses are dusty, or that a particular historic house is dusty, seems related to a sense of history. Contingency analysis set the responses to question 3, how the visitors described the house, against the responses to question 4, whether they thought houses were dusty. This showed that 12% thought Calke was 'historic' and 18% thought historic houses were dusty, whereas at Chastleton, 30% of responses thought the house 'historic', whilst 42% felt that historic houses were in general dusty. This is more than double the rate at Calke. Thus the dustier a house is, the more historic it appears to be. Some of the phrases used by Chastleton's visitors make this clear: Historic houses are nicer when they're dusty'; it's 'the dust of ages''; even 'I think they should be [dusty].'
Visitors' responses to the 5th, open, question: Why do you think dust in historic houses might cause us concern? showed that their understanding of the impact of dust was consistent between the properties. The correlation between dust and damage was very strong: over half the responses mention this. Dust's relationship with insect pests was the next greatest concern, followed by its impact on presentation though this was quite low. The final most numerically significant concern was that dust might provoke health problems, perhaps unsurprisingly given press reports on the role of dust in causing asthma and other allergies.
Need for more cleaning
Question 6, the final question, was: How would you improve cleaning in this room? Some people interpreted this as 'how would you clean this room'. In English Heritage houses the majority of people felt they wouldn't or couldn't improve cleaning, with 77% stating this at Eltham, 63% at Brodsworth and 60% at Ranger's House. This wasn't so clear cut in National Trust houses: a majority thought cleaning could be improved at Chastleton and Calke which are shown delibarately dusty and cluttered. However, at Lanhydrock and Baddesley the majority view was nearer to EH properties, with 60% and 50% respectively thinking no more cleaning was needed.
Dustiness and cleaning
The perception of dustiness in a house correlates with a need for improved cleaning. Little improvement was felt necessary at Calke, and Baddesley, where dustiness was least cited, more improvement was suggested at Lanhydrock, whereas at Chastleton half the responses wanted more cleaning.
However, visitors' appreciation of the atmospheric nature of dust and perception of the need to improve cleaning are rather contradictory. Of those who specifically described Chastleton as historic, a majority thought it was dusty, but were split between whether it needed more cleaning or should be left as it is. Some of the quotes make the role of dust explicit in this. One said that dust 'adds to the charm, and I don't think you need to [improve cleaning] as long as it's at a level where nothing is spoilt'. Some who suggested cleaning also suggested that doing this could risk losing atmosphere.
Conclusion - visitor perceptions
Visitors produced surprisingly sophisticated responses, commenting on dust's potential hygroscopic and corrosive effects on historic surfaces. Others, particularly in Cornwall for some reason, at Lanydrock, mention modern technology, and the use of ventilation, dust extraction, and humidifiers, and awareness of the difficulties of fitting such equipment into an historic house.
The variety of responses that the houses provoked show that not all the properties are seen as the same, despite the prevalence of tea towels and pot pourri in the shops. Comfort, darkness, magnificence, historicness, beauty and cleanliness were all particularly characteristic of certain properties, though most scored reasonably high under comfort, which makes me think that is what visitors are looking for, somewhere they can imagine living themselves.
Visitors also understand the difficulties of cleaning fragile and complex interiors. There was an awareness of the risks of over cleaning, and the need to maintain a balance. There was also a recognition of expertise being necessary to clean historic interiors, to preserve a patina which may be damaged by overcleaning.
Conclusion - Management Issues
Dust may not be at the forefront of most visitors' minds, but when prompted they do notice when it is there. These results suggest that the sense of historicness is enhanced by dust, a concept conservators struggle with, but is not necessary to give the visitors a particular sense of the property. This sense of historicity can therefore be achieved by managing dust levels and cleaning levels amongst other things.
However, there is a contradiction for management, in that those who appreciate a dusty patina also want it removed. In general, though most visitors think historic houses aren't dusty, and the strategies for managing dust and achieving specific spirits of place appear to be working.
This was an extraordinarily rich study, designed to give the visitors the opportunity to speak and define the subject, which obtained a lot of information with a few open and closed questions. We would like to refine the questionnaire guided by these results, to ask more structured questions, with more controlled answers. There were also differences in the ways that responses were gathered, some recording only yes/no answers and others allowing more than one response to a question. More training for the questioners could help, in addition to the written guidance that was sent out. We would also like to test the base value of this type of questionnaire, i.e. the likelihood that if you took the same group of people to a clean and an uncleaned house, 15% of them would still say that the cleaned house needed cleaning. However, the subjective nature of this questionnaire can be seen as making the consistencies even more robust.
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