60th Anniversary Dinner Speech by the Director of the National Trust (NT), Tim Dixon

Held on Sat 3 Nov 2018 at the Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame


When I say where I work, I often get the question: “So, what exactly is the National Trust?”

It’s a good question. Of course, we’re a charity that works to preserve and protect historic spaces and places – forever, for everyone. But what’s with the name?

Voltaire once wrote of the Holy Roman Empire based in Germany, that it was not Holy, nor Roman nor an Empire.   I think he would say something similar about our National Trust. It is neither National nor a Trust.

At one level, it is simple: we’re a Territory-based community organisation. But there are other ways to look at it.

We’re the largest manager of heritage properties in the Northern Territory outside government.

Last year, the National Trust leveraged more than 12,000 volunteer-hours to keep our properties open.

The National Trust manages more regional museums than any other organisation, outside government.

We are a genuine regional tourism provider: who else manages tourist attractions in Alice Springs, Borroloola, Newcastle Waters, Katherine, and Pine Creek?

It’s an interesting time for the National Trust.  In many ways, we are now forced to find different ways to do business, we are forced to examine what we do and why we do it, and how we can do it better. We have to ask ourselves, what are we? Are we advocates, or a lobby group? Are we volunteers sitting in old buildings? Are we managers and proprietors of historic properties?

Maybe our emphasis should be that we are advocates and promoters of heritage. Maybe our properties are nice, but they are more of an optional add-on to our lobbying and promotional efforts. And we’ve had some tremendous wins over the years, stopping the pointless destruction of some amazing properties. These are some of our proudest achievements, and central to our identity. It was activism which led to the inaugural meeting of the National Trust, 60 years ago today, not far from here. We don’t achieve these wins in isolation but as part of our local community. But if we are activists and lobbyists then why do we have all these properties? The National Trusts around Australia own around 150 properties, we have 15. The Northern Territory has around 1% of the population, but around 10% of the National Trust historic properties.

Or maybe we just like old buildings. We think they should be open because they are old, and we don’t mind sitting in them, sometimes without many visitors, because we quite like hanging out in them. We protect, repair, maintain and nurture them with love, and with passion, and with admiration. There is a lot of truth in this. Each and every day, somewhere in the Territory, volunteers give up their time to keep our properties open, from Alice Springs to Darwin to places more remote. Even Christmas and New Year’s, there are a couple of people who I bet put in an hour or two for their local property or garden, or for the Trust more broadly. One of the volunteers I am thinking of is our President, Trevor Horman, who I know is very sorry that he can’t make it here tonight.   In many ways, all this volunteering isn’t a rational decision, and yet, every day, without fail, I am overwhelmed with the generosity, knowledge, and enthusiasm of our volunteers. I mentioned earlier, that we relied on over 12,000 volunteer hours last year. And that’s a conservative estimate. We’ll rely on similar numbers this year.

Or maybe we run and manage historic properties. In current speak, we are heritage tourism providers. We manage many tourism assets and we need to improve our metrics. And if we see ourselves as owners and operators of historic properties, then, if anything we would be looking to expand our property portfolio with all the usual caveats about securing new funding streams, because, more than anyone, we know owning heritage properties can be an expensive proposition.

In reality, of course, most of us see the Trust as a necessary mix of all these things. We want to be advocates, and we love these old buildings, and we know we need to be smart about how we do it because we get the bills.

How do I see the Trust? Not just as advocates, not just as charmingly quirky volunteers, not just as property managers and heritage experience providers – I see the National Trust as a community, and part of the community. We’re a community organisation, and we provide an essential community service. We’re a bunch of people, ordinary people, trying to do more with less. And we need to be a community of like-minded people: we need people to feel welcomed and valued and to feel like they belong. We need people like everyone here tonight, we need your help, your support, your guidance and your forbearance. Because people like you are the Trust.

When the National Trusts speaks of assets, we aren’t talking about buildings – we are talking about our members and volunteers. When we talk about heritage tourism providers, we are again talking about our members and our volunteers. And when we are talking of regional tourist destinations, we speak, again, of our volunteers.

There is no comparable organization close to the National Trust in terms of scale, and nothing would be possible without the tireless efforts of our members and volunteers.

As long as the Trust can continue to attract a high calibre of volunteers – ordinary Territorians who are passionate about our local heritage – I know that our future is bright and the National Trust will continue with its mission to promote and protect our heritage.