Cultural policy Contemporary art United Kingdom

London’s museums can do more for UK tourism

The national museums should be encouraged to market the rest of Britain through their collections

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s website could have a link to Hardwick Hall

Crisis or not, this is Olympics year in London and the media is already bursting with optimism and pride. The stadia are ready on time and on budget; the tickets are nearly all sold, and we are hearing a well orchestrated crescendo of marketing themes. Paradoxically, however, this may not be so good for the economy because it looks as though it will hit tourism, and this matters, because one in 12 jobs in the UK is supported directly or indirectly by tourism, a £16.6 billion-a-year industry. Apparently, the Americans, French and Germans—just to mention those who top the list of big-spenders visiting the UK—may decide to give Britain a miss this year because they expect London to be too crowded.

This is serious, because London attracts 52% of expenditure by foreign tourists, compared with, for example, Yorkshire’s 3%. The same research shows that people come to the UK mainly to experience its culture and heritage, but few ever get beyond London. Of the top 20 UK visitor attractions, only three are outside the capital, and when you discover that they are Lake Windermere cruises, North Yorkshire’s Flamingo Land, and Chester Zoo, you realise that the world is not seeing the best of Britain. Research shows that the main reason why foreign tourists often stick to London is that they do not know where else to go.

This is confirmed by the Anholt GfK Roper Nation Brands Index survey, which puts the UK in 22nd position as regards its natural beauty. It seems that people do not know about the Yorkshire Dales, the Scottish moors, the gentle hills and golden stone villages of the Cotswolds, the wildnesses of Cumbria, even the well-kept farmlands of Surrey—above all, the beautifully tended and protected nature of our landscape. When you compare this with the chaotic governance and greed that has raped so much of la bella Italia, it is an expression of Britain’s long-standing and civilised equilibrium between its inhabitants, the planning authorities and economic interests, a gentle heritage indeed.

But the instrument to get tourists out of London already exists, unused—all it needs is lateral thinking and a little money.

The national museums should be encouraged to market the rest of Britain through their collections. London’s British Museum, the Tate galleries, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the National Gallery top the list of the 20 most visited destinations and they all contain art that come from other parts of the British Isles or that are related to places beyond London. They all have popular websites (in 2009-10 the V&A came first, with 20.5m hits, then the Tate with 18.8m, then the British Museum with 15m).

So when the British Museum writes on its site about the famous 12th-century walrus-ivory chessmen from the Isle of Lewis, it should add some information about the Outer Hebrides and a click-through to the isles’ site describing how to get there. When Tate Britain describes its Turner collection, it should tell people about Petworth House in Sussex, a National Trust property where Turner painted, and where there is the greatest holding of the artist’s works in private hands.

The Tate should direct its visitors to the newly opened Turner Contemporary at Margate in Kent, a gallery designed by David Chipperfield commemorating the painter’s association with the seaside town, with intelligent exhibitions of contemporary art (neither Petworth nor Margate are mentioned on the Tate’s current website). The 12th-century enamelled Becket casket in the V&A should lead people to Canterbury Cathedral, where they can stand on the spot where Thomas à Becket was murdered by the three knights represented on the reliquary. The V&A’s 15th-century Devonshire hunting tapestries should tell you how to get to Hardwick, the great Elizabethan house in Derbyshire where they came from. The Robert Adam room from the Adelphi should recommend that, in order to see Adam’s work at its finest, you should get on a train to the home of the Earls of Harewood and the National Trust’s Kedlestone Hall, both in Yorkshire.

For one of the glories of Britain is that we still have more historic houses complete with collections and their landscaped parklands around them than any other country. Three hundred of those in private hands are open to the public, as well as 330 belonging to the National Trusts of England and of Scotland. Between them, they represent one of the greatest museums in the world, without the disadvantage of actual museums, which is that they are full of works of art that have lost their human background. Surely it is in our national museums’ interest to give this information in order to enrich their visitors’ experience.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has pledged £50m to VisitBritain, formerly the British Tourist Authority, over four years in the hope that another £50m will come from alliances. British Airways and the shipping lines P&O and DFDS Seaways are contributing financially. The museums could contribute their “leads”, know-how and websites, and VisitBritain the money to adapt them to this additional function. A crisis becomes an opportunity if it makes us more ingenious and more collaborative.

The writer is the founding editor and chief executive of The Art Newspaper

This article draws on the report explaining every option for growth by John Lewis, the former chairman of the British Tourist Authority

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31 Jan 12
15:31 CET


There are some remarkable collections of art, throughout the UK. So why not get things moving by bringing the best of these collections to London. At least then the collections would be seen by many more people and the galleries/ museums would get publicity.

24 Jan 12
18:23 CET


Thanks for a fascinating article. I can certainly imagine staying away from London during the Olympics although, presumably, a large number of ticket holders will be coming from other countries and will have time and money to spend on non-Olympic activities. Will they leave London though? Perhaps to visit Oxford or Cambridge, or Stonehenge. Tourists tend to be restrained by budget and schedule: why spend a day travelling to Canterbury and back when there's so much to see in the capital? It isn't that people don't know the way to places, they just have to be persuaded that it's worth going. People can and do travel outside London if they think it's worth doing so - look at the success of Banksy vs the City Museum (Bristol, 2009), and of museums like Pallant House in Chichester. I can't see the Tate encouraging people to visit provincial museums, houses, etc, though - it's up to the institutions themselves to get together and make a noise.

23 Jan 12
22:20 CET


A proper Turner Gallery, in place of the Clore pretence, could and would point to Petworth - and very much more (Port Sunlight, Tabley House, Farnley Hall. Yorkshire, Devon ....). Of course it would also attract many more visitors to London, with a clear identity and profile, than does the present pathetic set-up.

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