What role will the UK’s heritage sector have in 2050? How will it navigate the challenges of offering a quality, meaningful experience, without succumbing to homogeneity?
In an August 2016 article, the journalist Kyle Chayka suggested the idea of AirSpace, , which explores the directions our homes and public spaces are moving in on a global scale. This is useful in that it provides some clues as to future opportunities for heritage:
It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live/work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet.
In this AirSpace, coffee shops look the same in Moldova, Manchester and Mumbai. The domestic interior of people’s homes has followed suit, characterised by a judicious combination of standard Ikea pieces and ‘statement’ vintage additions. This off-the-shelf aesthetic owes much of its impact to visual platforms such as Instagram and global online marketplaces like AirBnB.
Chayka’s unapologetic characterisation of the uniformity encouraged by such online platforms presents a huge opportunity for the UK Heritage Sector. Our heritage assets are the antidote to AirSpace. As the RSA’s Heritage Index demonstrates, these heritage assets are spread widely across the UK and are a key resource to connect people to places. These connections are deep rooted and emotional, connected to particular places and cultures.
The National Trust’s 2017 Places that Make Us research report revealed the extent to which ‘key areas of emotional processing in the brain are activated by a place deemed to be special’. Combining the neurophysiological with behavioural evidence, the report makes a compelling case for the importance of caring for special places (be these landscapes, buildings or other heritage assets) for future generations to enjoy. At a local, regional and national level, heritage makes a range of positive contributions to our social, economic and environmental interactions. We even know that heritage is good for our health.
Indeed, the UK’s historic spaces and places have never been more popular. The Heritage Lottery Fund has shown that heritage tourism is a vital part of the UK economy, that it is high value, and that the sector generated an £8.8 billion gross value added contribution to the UK GDP and 191,000 jobs. These contributions are increasingly recognised by central government, thanks in part to the important advocacy work led by organisations including The Heritage Alliance and RSA.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport’s new Heritage Statement confirms what many in our sector already knew, and experience in their day-to-day activities. Crucial to the future success of our sector will be the ability to find advocates for our work in different places. It is the counter-intuitive, new and unexpected voices that often resonate in a way that card-carrying heritage professionals struggle to. We need to find these advocates, these mavericks and these visionaries and nurture their engagement at an early age. These voices must find their way onto DCMS’s new Heritage Council.
If AirSpace is all about façade, heritage must create depth. The content that we share with our audiences must be of ‘Triple A’ quality. It must be accurate. It must be authentic. Most importantly, it must be accessible.
The future success of the UK’s heritage sector will depend on broadening the range of its collaborators. Insights from the retail sector could prove invaluable in engaging audiences with our cause. Working with country houses, I’m often struck by the similarities with a visit to Ikea. Both depend on a functional and appealing visitor infrastructure of car parks, cafes and toilets. Both stage dress rooms that create a particular mood and feeling. Both have the potential to create meaningful, emotional connections with visitors. Somewhat ironically, it’s Ikea that achieves this most often. The heritage sector has plenty to learn from these innovative retail experiences. The Choose Love Christmas pop-up shop is an especially powerful recent example.
The UK’s Higher Education sector also has a critical supporting role to play. As Heritage Engagement Fellow for the University of Oxford I’m working with a wide range of organisations to think about how we meet and exceed visitors’ expectations, and broaden the base of those engaged with, and advocating for, heritage.