The Accidental Cultural Tourist
January 26, 2012 \ Arts & Culture
by Nicola Walls
Our seminar in January 2012 focused on the renewal of 19th Century institutions for 21st Century audiences. A broad range of guests from across the cultural sector; from service providers, conservation organisations, exhibition designers and planners, contributed to a lively discussion.
Our guest speaker, Paul Jardine of Jura Consultants, gave an insightful introduction to the rise of cultural and heritage tourism, demonstrating the ever-increasing numbers of people visiting museums, galleries and heritage sites. It is quite remarkable to think we are just short of 50% of the population enjoying such visits, though not necessarily attracted by the heritage value or collection, it may be to meet friends in the café, use the shop, or attend a one off event. Paul argued eloquently that these ‘accidental’ tourists are important in that they may become tomorrow’s committed cultural visitor and supporter.
Fresh consideration of external setting, approach, entrance, internal visitor flow and cross fertilisation of uses, allows us to refresh our much loved cultural and civic institutions. Increased visitor numbers to both McManus and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery since their re-opening, validate this approach.
There then ensued a lively and wide-ranging discussion on how audiences can be broadened. Cafés are important not just in terms of revenue but also as the space to talk about your experience and provide a noisier more social balance to the reverence of the exhibition gallery, or indeed performance space.
Can extending opening hours attract new audiences? This approach at the Royal Festival Hall at the South Bank Centre has seen the foyers become busy meeting places all day. Perhaps NMS Lates will have the same effect on the museum visitor demographic, though extra opening hours can add operational and financial pressures.
Indeed is there is an underlying trend that galleries and museums seem to be moving from civic institutions to places of encounter – with friends, history, different cultures. And if so are there other appropriate uses that could be successfully integrated together, such as the combination of performance space and library at the Platform in Easterhouse?
And perhaps the most pressing question of all in these tough economic times – how can we demonstrate the value of our cultural institutions beyond the commercial? How can we ensure that museums and galleries remain the democratic spaces they currently are by virtue of being free? It is easy to quote increased visitor numbers and the revenue generated by the café and shop, but how can we assess their value in “helping people lead meaningful and happy lives”.