You can’t make heritage hip
Why are organisations like the National Trust trying to get uninterested yoof into their historic houses?
There is a very specific demographic that goes to historic houses: white couples, over-60, middle(ish) class. The house shop invariably sells Potpourri, lavender soap and walking sticks; the toilets have dried flower decorations; the café serves macaroni cheese and some kind of hotpot.
Yet now heritage sites want to get down with young people and find ‘new audiences’. A conference starting today in Manchester, Your Place or Mine?, organised by English Heritage and the National Trust, encourages heritage organisations to share ideas about how best to engage youth and ethnic minorities.
Heritage organisations are going into something of a tailspin. In the past, their role was simple: they were mainly set up in the nineteenth century to protect the homes and lands of feudal England from encroaching industrialisation. The National Trust, formed in 1895, bought up stately homes and estates from the waning landed aristocracy.
When institutions talk about searching for new audiences they are really searching for themselves. They don’t like the demographic that they have, because they don’t like what they are. So we end up with the perverse situation of heritage institutions wanting most those who don’t want them. The more reluctant a person, the more suitable they are to be ‘engaged’.
The conference has a session on how to draw in ‘hard-to-reach groups’: ‘learn the art of attraction and make marketing to new audiences work for you.’ Another session asks, ‘What are the needs of young people and how can we meet them?’ All this employs a patronising model of the public. The model visitor is not an interested person who pitches up under their own steam: it is a mute, disturbed, marginalised person, apparently in need of some heritage therapy. Lost institutions go looking for the lost, in an attempt to make themselves useful.
And they are not so sure that heritage should be about historic houses anymore. ‘Should heritage be redefined to move beyond the traditional stately home and castle?’, asks one pre-conference debate, which then suggests the definition should be extended to include music, memory and graffiti. One contributor was unsure: ‘Heritage is in fact a very personal thing and no one person or organisation can define what it is. Those of us who are involved in helping to preserve and enhance access to heritage must be prepared to put aside our own understanding of what it means and listen to those who we are hoping to engage.’
These institutions’ role is no longer merely to dust the candlesticks and wind up the clocks. Instead, they are seeking intimate forms of engagement – less managing buildings than managing people’s memories. English Heritage projects have engaged Asian women to discuss their memories of home, carers to discuss their response to caring, and a women’s group ‘to explore their own identity and look at the past, present and future of their community’.
Heritage community outreach projects have a certain formula. A community group/mental health group/school group is asked to respond to a historic building/garden and express its views in an artwork/play, which is then put on public display. One English Heritage project in Bristol, ‘Mapping Time’, worked with a community and mental health group to produce sculpture and wall hangings in response to two local churches.
There is something a bit creepy about all this. People’s memories are best left to themselves. Personal recollections should be a matter for the family photo album or chats with friends. Community responses to heritage sites are best recorded in local folklore, with stories about ghosts in a house or a murder in a church. These spontaneous recollections are far richer than staged artworks elicited by community mediators.
Heritage organisations would do better to play to their strengths: preserve houses, advertise, open the doors and see who comes. Once they start trying to preserve memories and graffiti, they lose the plot. Historic houses have a very engaged demographic, with troops of volunteers who run the shop and tell visitors about the history of the site. These are people who love historic houses. They have memorised an absurd amount about the shenanigans of the house’s former occupants and the stories behind a particular piece of furniture.
Perhaps young people are missing out by not going to historic sites. Or perhaps not. These ‘hard-to-reach’ groups are probably doing just fine. There is something to be said for their irreverence and blithe indifference to the fact that Charles Dickens lodged in a house for a night in 1859. There are times in one’s life for going to historic houses, and there are times when one has other things to do.
Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club. She is speaking against the motion ‘Should heritage have a social responsibility?’, at Your Place or Mine? in Manchester on Friday 3 November 2006.
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