Interview with outgoing Shakespeare Birthplace Trust chief executive

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Chief Executive Diana Owen, who steps down after 10 years this week.

THE Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is on track for another successful year with record numbers visiting the five Shakespeare family homes and gardens and participation in its learning and outreach programmes at an all-time high.

The independent charity is set to receive National Portfolio Organisation funding from Arts Council England for the first time from April 2018. It is listed in The Sunday Times 100 best non-profit organisations to work for, and volunteer support has quadrupled; collectively volunteers have given 170,000 hours over the past decade.

The picture was much less rosy when Diana Owen joined the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust as its sole director in 2007. After a year of terrible floods in Stratford, the trust was weathering a ‘perfect storm’ that was slowly but surely sapping its lifeblood — the visitor numbers which deliver nearly all of its income.

A strong pound, closure of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford for refurbishment, mounting fixed costs and a world recession compounded years of declining visitor numbers. For Diana, the key to a turnaround lay in staff, not stuff.

“It might seem strange to say that despite the great wealth of Shakespearian heritage at our disposal, our greatest asset was the people who could bring it to life. Our people — staff and volunteers alike — cover an astonishing range of disciplines and I’m in awe of their passion, skills and expertise every day.

“As a CEO you’re only ever as good as the people around you, and my approach is to enable everyone to play their part. Through a series of workshops we arrived at a collective vision which says what we do ‘on the tin’: Leading the world’s enjoyment and understanding of Shakespeare’s works, life and times.

This was the rallying call for the trust to become a more outward-facing, confident organisation putting Shakespeare and Stratford on the world stage.” The next priority was to invest in the visitor experience at the Shakespeare family homes. The introduction of the resident Shakespeare Aloud acting troupe at the Birthplace — a kind of Shakespeare jukebox — has been an enduring success.

The three-year Big Dig for Shakespeare at Shakespeare’s New Place — another product of staff and volunteer workshops — was a major draw and featured on three major TV series including BBC One’s National Treasures Live and Channel 4’s Time Team. It also re-booted the charity’s volunteer programme, with 400 volunteers taking part, and set the ground rules for the re-interpretation of the site of Shakespeare’s adult home.

In 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Shakespeare’s New Place re-opened following a £6million transformation. Within 12 months it had already welcomed 150,000 visitors, two years ahead of target. (Residents and workers in the CV37 Stratford postcode continue to enjoy free access.)

Diana, now 60, explains: “It is often said that Stratford is much more than a tourist destination, which of course it is, just as the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is much more than a visitor attraction — we are also a world class museum and educational charity. But without those visitors, the town and the trust would be so much less.

“Even with NPO funding, the trust will still need to raise 98 per cent of its own income to generate the funds needed to conserve, and keep open to the public, the Shakespeare family homes, collections and educational programmes.

“Our activities alone generate some £45million a year for the local economy, and tourism in Shakespeare’s England (Stratford and south Warwickshire) is worth £631million.”

As a member of Stratford’s Cultural Consortium in 2008/09, Diana brought significant funding from Advantage West Midlands both to the town’s annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Celebrations and to the new Life, Love & Legacy exhibition at Shakespeare’s Birthplace.

That funding abruptly dried up in 2010 following the change of government, and with ongoing cuts to local and regional government budgets Diana says it has been a struggle to keep culture and tourism on the district and county councils’ and CWLEP agendas.

The trust was a prime mover in setting up Shakespeare’s England, the destination management organisation for the region as a public/private partnership in 2013.

“Stratford holds the jewels in the UK’s tourism crown and it has the opportunity to claim its rightful place as the World Shakespeare Centre,” Diana declares.

“The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has a long-term ambition to create a new World Shakespeare Centre in Henley Street to provide a better context and setting for the Birthplace, the conservation of the building itself and new facilities.

“Such a major project will take years and support from partners at regional, national and international levels. In the meantime, Stratford is already a de facto World Shakespeare Centre encompassing the RSC, Shakespeare’s Schoolroom, Holy Trinity Church and the Shakespeare Institute, as well as the trust.

“The town and district councils should adopt the phrase now to raise Stratford’s profile in an increasingly competitive market.”

Always a passionate ambassador for Shakespeare’s Stratford as a global cultural meeting place, Diana’s efforts to build strong links with organisations in China resulted in a visit by Premier Wen in 2011, which made headlines for Stratford and Shakespeare worldwide and led to the current proposals to recreate Shakespeare’s homes in Fuzhou.

She led the bid which brought the 2016 World Shakespeare Congress to Stratford. Closer to home, Diana was presented with the Yamani Medal in recognition of her partnership initiatives between the trust and the Iqbal Academy to engage the Pakistani community in our region.

She also forged strong links with her native Indian community with annual celebrations of the Nobel-prize winning author and playwright, Tagore. Her work on behalf of the town was acknowledged with the Pride of Stratford Award in 2012.

She says: “That meant a great deal because it recognised the integral role that Shakespeare and everyone at the trust plays in the life, history, culture and employment of Stratford. What price the world’s most important Shakespeare heritage properties and collections unless we can share them with the world and with people from every walk of life?”

Asked to pick the defining moment in her decade at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, she finds it hard to choose. “Shakespeare Week, our annual celebration of the world’s greatest playwright for primary school children launched in 2014, has already reached half of the nation’s children.

It makes me so proud to see ten-year-olds enthusing visitors with their knowledge of Shakespeare’s life. “The launch of the Cobbe Portrait, the only picture of Shakespeare painted from life, was a media sensation. It stirred up the factions who question Shakespeare’s authorship and we launched a series of hugely successful campaigns to re-affirm Shakespeare the playwright and poet as the son of Stratford.

“Digital technology has transformed our ability to connect people the world over with Shakespeare, not least through our successful MOOCs and online access to our collections catalogue.

“Five million people engaged with our online platforms this year. “If I had to pick one day it would be 23rd April, 2016, the Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations. Our live programme from Shakespeare’s New Place opened the BBC/British Council Shakespeare Lives platform, broadcast to the world on the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death there.

“At 3pm I welcomed HRH The Prince of Wales to New Place. The site was far from finished due to poor weather, and Prince Charles joked that he would be delighted to return if it was completed in his lifetime. Later we had a reception for Friends and supporters at the Shakespeare Centre, and watched the RSC gala beamed live, followed by spectacular fireworks by the river.

“Later I was privileged to walk into Holy Trinity Church, lit only by candles, to the grave of the man whose life and legacy we had been celebrating all day. It was an inspiring, exhilarating and magical day.”

In December, Diana will embark on her new project to take up the post of Director General at the Royal Over-Seas League in London.

She says of her decision to leave: “After ten years with the trust, and following the extraordinary success of the 400th anniversary last year, I felt the time was right to hand on the baton. I had planned to take some time out, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity in my new role to continue my commitment to building international friendship and understanding.

“At the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust I have seen how powerful culture and heritage can be in bringing people together. “From my office overlooking Shakespeare’s Birthplace I see people of all ages and backgrounds, from all over the world, and it has always felt like home.

“I have been very lucky to be part of this big family, here in Stratford and everywhere that I have visited in the world. “I will miss all the fantastic people I work with every day here. I will still be based in Stratford, a town I have grown to love, and I plan to keep in touch.”

See an exclusive interview with Diana’s successor Tim Cooke in tomorrow’s Herald.

  • Stephen Moorer

    “The launch of the Cobbe Portrait, the only picture of Shakespeare painted from life…” – In this day and age, this would be called “Fake News”. Diana Owen should be ashamed of herself for spreading such nonsense.

    According to readily available public information:
    “Other experts are even more sceptical, and suggest that even the circumstantial evidence is weak. Shakespeare scholar David Scott Kastan also took the view that there were reasons to question the Cobbe portrait’s provenance — whether it was in fact once owned by the Earl of Southampton or commissioned by him, as the Trust representatives believe — and to doubt whether the richly dressed man in the portrait was Shakespeare. “If I had to bet, I would say it’s not Shakespeare,”

    “Sir Roy Strong, former Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, and a leading scholar of Elizabethan and Jacobean portraiture, has called Wells’s claims “codswallop.”

    “Dr Tanya Cooper, curator of 16th century portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, also voiced scepticism. While acknowledging that the Janssen portrait and the Cobbe portrait are versions of the same image, she believes it likely that both portraits represent Sir Thomas Overbury. Of Wells’s identification of the sitter as Shakespeare, she said, “I respect Wells’s scholarship enormously, but portraiture is a very different area, and this doesn’t add up.”

    “Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel wrote that the Cobbe portrait was not an authentic likeness of Shakespeare. She noted the opinion of Eberhard J. Nikitsch, a specialist in inscriptions, who said that the script of the painting’s inscription was not commonly used in early 17th-century portraits, and that it must have been added later.”

  • Melanie.V.Taylor

    Well said Mr Moorer.

    For someone who has made a career in the world of commerce to make this type of statement is to make a mockery of the academic scholarship of art historians who study for years. They do not just look at pretty pictures, but are required to have a knowledge of the techniques, styles and history of artists and a wide and deep appreciation of the political and social history of their specific period of interest. You do not find art historians making this type of public statement on any aspect of the world of commerce. They recognise their limitations and keep to what they know.

    It is not just opinion, or visual and documentary evidence that is required to back up any identification of a sitter. Modern scientific techniques of Xray, reflectography, pigment analysis and dendrochronology are important tools used to identify not only who any sitter may be, but can also suggest a possible workshop and/or artist. In the case of The Bard there is an element of doubt as to the identity of any of the portraits suggested as being of him (including the Chandos). Science has already revealed ’19th century copies’ claiming to be contemporary portraits from life of our man. In the 19th century they were not regarded as forgeries. Other 16th century portraits have been adjusted in crude attempts to present the holy grail of an ad vivum portrait of our playwright.

    Identification is always going to be subjective, but perhaps one day science will be able to provide evidence that will give us a more than 90% certainty of the identity of a portrait that is claimed to be that of William Shakespeare.