Friday, July 10, 2009

The power of place in historic house museums

Visiting various National Trust properties in the UK in June, I was reminded about the power of place. Stunning as these places are physically, whether it be their gardens e.g. Sissinghurst, their buildings, e.g. Waddesdon Manor, or their collections, e.g. Kingston Lacy, the reason visitors want to come back to them is more about the ‘spirituality’ of the place than the aesthetic pleasures they provide. As numbers of visitors to historic house museums continue to fall from highs in the 1980s, particularly in the US and Australia, the challenge is to find ways to attract people back and at the same time new audiences.

One way that the English National Trust is having significant success in attracting repeat or new visitors is by creating groups of like minded people that enjoy meeting at one of their properties because of the power of the place. By this I think they mean that it is a place where they can meet people who share their interests, enjoy social activities, even volunteer to help conserve their heritage, all in the setting of a place that has a ‘spiritual’ dimension through its history, beauty, or association. They have over 350 active groups.

Another clever way is by associating the place with a good gastronomic experience. This goes beyond just having a good restaurant. Using the slogan “Savour the taste, remember the place”, the National Trust is pushing the line that if you can give people good food in an inspiring place then again they will be more likely to come back. Overlaying this with a focus on organic food grown on Trust farms gives it another dimension. As the Trust says, they ‘passionately believe that there has to be a change in the way we all think about food, how it’s produced, where we buy it, and how we cook it’ (has Jamie Oliver had THAT much influence?!) .

The National Trust in England is one of the great heritage success stories of how to build a vast and loyal membership base (well over 3 million), and they have obviously been helped by a large population on a small island and some extraordinary properties. However the National Trust in Australia could learn from their focus on the power of place. As a board member of the NSW branch, I look forward to seeing what we can do.

No comments:

Post a Comment