The new Chief Executive of Dumfries House tells The Art Fund about plans for the house

  • 5 June 2008

Michael Schafer, the new Chief Executive of Dumfries House, tells Art Quarterly about plans for the future, and what visitors will see when the house opens to the public on 6 June

When I first arrived at Dumfries House I was immediately struck by its setting in beautiful parkland, with the sweeping drive leading up to it. The views are spectacular, but very few people have ever seen the house or its contents. Many people who live only a few miles away still don’t know it’s here, but those in the immediate neighbourhood have greeted the whole project with excitement and are very much behind it. We have to take it through 180 degrees – from somewhere that’s been private for 250 years to a public visitor attraction. There’s no infrastructure here for public access – no decent road, car park, shops, toilets or restaurant. All these facilities will be put in, but there’s a huge amount to do, so we’re approaching the project in stages.

The first thing we had to address was access to the estate. The old entrance involved a dangerous turn-off from the A70, so we’re creating a new one on the north side of the estate. The most exciting thing about this is that you will get an amazing view of the entire estate on the way in. Visitors will be able to park their cars where the old cowsheds are at the moment, and then board minibuses to the house, crossing the Adam bridge over Lugar Water. We plan to install temporary portakabins so that visitors can wait inside for the shuttle bus if it is raining. We’ve taken a huge leap of faith that we can get ourselves organised by 6 June, but I’m determined the public should see the house, and if you don’t set a date you never get going.

The house is very much a ‘work in progress’, but I think people will be very excited to see it as it is now. We’re about to embark on a conservation clean, and there’ll be some consolidation of certain pieces of furniture to aid the presentation for when the house opens. We’ll have fresh ideas on presentation for the future, including those of the curator I’ve just appointed.

This summer we’ll be taking guided group tours only, but anyone will be able to book to join a group tour if there is space available on one of them. We have to operate in this way, because space is limited, and the rooms are tightly packed. It’s hard to allow people to wander through freely, as the contents need to be carefully protected, but I think it will lead to a better visitor experience. We want visitors to walk in and feel they have entered a private home as privileged guests rather than a museum atmosphere with ropes everywhere, and signs saying ‘Do Not Touch’.

Eventually the house will be open to the public for about half the year, five days a week. We plan to close on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but if tours have booked this summer on those days we’ll stay open and honour the commitment. Visitors will be able to see most of the main rooms on the first floor, including the white drawing room and tapestry room, as well as some of the key bedrooms on the second floor. We won’t yet have a proper café, but visitors will be able to walk down the back stairs and along the ground-floor servants’ corridor into the chapel library for morning coffee or afternoon tea.

Unfortunately, disabled access will be fairly limited during our first season, as it will be some time before a lift is installed to carry wheelchair users and our less able-bodied visitors to the first floor, but I am planning to have a DVD available for those visitors unable to cope with the steps and stairs. We will allow disabled visitors to drive up to the front of the house and take photographs if they want to, then park at the back of the house.

Of course, the project is not just about the house, but about the entire estate, involving several different areas and outbuildings, such as the old laundry room and sawmill, as well as the stable block and coach house, which we would like to convert into a restaurant and shop. We want to create a family destination with wide appeal. Local engagement is critical for us: the area was badly affected in the economic downturn of the 1980s and we have a generation who have not experienced the prosperity of earlier years. Many local people have already offered to help and want to get involved, and we would like to work closely with the local schools and sixth-form colleges. We already have a good team of ‘Dumfries House Volunteers’ ready to play their part.

There is a certain amount of money available for our work, but we will need to continue with all types of fundraising. The purpose of Dumfries House and The Great Steward of Scotland’s Dumfries House Trust is to stimulate social regeneration by engaging with the local people. We are determined to succeed in making Dumfries House a first-class visitor destination with a reputation for quality of service delivered by the local community. We’ve already come a long way, but this is just the beginning of our journey.

To book a tour of Dumfries House, go to
www.dumfries-house.org.uk or phone 01290 551111.

To read the latest press release about the opening of Dumfries House, please click here