Working in a stately home

 12 April 2012

Employees at the Chatsworth stately home describe the challenges of working at a heritage site, and how their modern art collections brings in new audiences.

A key challenge is to keep audiences engaged and interested and wanting to come. Image © Chatsworth House Trust.
A key challenge is to keep audiences engaged and interested and wanting to come. Image © Chatsworth House Trust.

Working on a historic estate

Simon Seligman, former Head of Communications

"It's quite difficult to sum up Chatsworth in a brief sentence or paragraph, but essentially it is a place where history has been made for 500 years.

"People say, 'It can't be hard to attract people to visit!' but we have to be as aggressive a marketing department as any."

"It's been owned by one family for that time, who were very wealthy and chose to build a house as a symbol of their wealth and their taste.

"That house has then been filled with countless treasures by fifteen generations of the same family, and that continues right through to the present day.

"The estate is now a 35,000-acre working environment where many many people work, and over a million people every year come for their recreation. The whole Chatsworth estate employs about 600 people."

The challenges of marketing a heritage venue

Simon Seligman

"I think there are some people who join us thinking that working at Chatsworth is sort of going to be cream teas, and cake with the Duchess once a week, and it's all going to be easy.

"For example, in my department: 'it can't be that hard to attract people to come and visit a place like Chatsworth!' Well actually, we have to be as aggressive a marketing department as any marketing department."

Sarah Montgomery, former General Manager

"Old buildings need constant investment, and it's the challenges of generating a sustained stream of income, whether it's from grants or visitor income coming in."

Hannah Obee, Exhibitions Curator

"A friend's daughter called it a palace the other day. And people think 'well, what relevance has that got with me when I might be losing my job, or the price of petrol is going up, why should I spend half a tank of petrol coming to somewhere like this?'

"I think one of the key things for us is to try to keep audiences engaged and interested and wanting to come. I think that's one of the challenges facing all cultural sites, particularly outside of cities."

Developing art collections

Simon Seligman

"Chatsworth has an increasing programme of contemporary exhibitions, displays, installations.

"They range from permanent acquisitions by the Duke and Duchess, who are very keen collectors and commissioners of contemporary art, furniture, glass, ceramic and particularly sculpture. There are a number of new pieces outside.

"So many historic houses are frozen in time, whereas Chatsworth is continually evolving and developing."

"They see themselves in a historic continuum. They're simply collecting the art of their time, as their predecessors have done.

"And so you get this lovely juxtaposition where old and new are talking to each other. Both the audiences old and new but also the art old and new, referencing off each other."

Matthew Hirst, Head of Art and Historic Collections

"So many historic houses are frozen in time, preserved in aspic at a given moment, whereas Chatsworth is a continually evolving and developing place."

Claire Fowler, Education Officer

"All these world-class sculptures by artists including Antony Gormley, Damien Hirst, Salvador Dali, Barbara Hepworth...the list goes on. They're all in the garden, all in the same place for seven weeks, and we have so many school groups visit during that time.

"It just makes it easy for a school to justify visiting Chatsworth. Because as well as the house with its collection, and the garden which has a growing sculpture collection of its own, the exhibition is just one more reason which makes the visit fantastic value for money."

Hannah Obee

"We now have exhibitions of contemporary metalwork within the house.

"To be able to forge those links, and to have that interface between what's seen as a historic institution and actual makers who are living and working and thriving today, and to be able to represent their work here at Chatsworth, that's been a real highlight and an unexpected joy in my work here."

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