15 May 2018

Time for a trailblazing approach to Britain’s cultural heritage

By Andrew Bowie

Last year, I found myself at two very different cultural events, just a few weeks apart.

One was held in the awe-inspiring surroundings of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. There, I found myself surrounded by the great and the good of the British cultural establishment, attending the launch of a new government report, “Culture Is Digital”.

The other was held in the humbler surroundings of Inverbervie Public Library in the Mearns. There, I found myself surrounded by the great and the good of the community of Inverbervie and surrounds, to celebrate the opening of the Inverbervie Folk Museum.

The opening of the museum in Inverbervie, which had been a labour of love for many of the local residents for quite some time, was a moment to celebrate. Alongside the usual old photographs of the town as it had been in the past were magnificent stone carvings dating back to Pictish times, and strange-looking (to a millennial like me) agricultural implements from years gone by. The community were, rightly, hugely proud of what they had achieved.

Across my constituency of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, local heritage is celebrated and remembered – from Alford’s magnificent Heritage and Transport museums to Stonehaven’s fascinating Tolbooth museum, from the Grassic Gibbon Centre to our frankly embarrassing number of stunning castles and ancient churches. And the same is true in communities across the country.

Standing in Inverbervie Library, lost in the yellowing photograph of the old Inverbervie railway station, trying to work out what the intricate pattern on the Pictish stone was (in all honesty, probably Celtish graffiti – “Romans Go Home”, perhaps?), it struck me that there must be a myriad of links between this museum and others. The stone carving, after all, was similar to ones I had seen in the very north of Scotland. The agricultural instruments had been made outside Sheffield, probably arriving via the railway line that connected the North-East of Scotland to the rest of Britain and the wider world.

We are an island nation, certainly – but we are not a nation of islands. We exist in concert with other communities and areas, connected by the bonds of shared history and experiences. And although cultures and traditions differ from village to village, county to county, we are more alike, and share more connections to each other on this small rugged island floating in the North Atlantic, than many would care to acknowledge, or even notice.

Britain is at a critical moment in its history. Brexit is forcing a re-evaluation of our future path. Not only did the vote represent a rejection of the European Union, it also showed in many parts of the UK there is a feeling of being “left behind” the glittering capital in London.

We need to make sure that this feeling is addressed – drawing upon the shared bonds of history and the deep connection that holds the beautiful and diverse parts of our unique country together. And I believe that technology can help ensure that now is a moment of renewal and rebirth across the country.

Currently, London dominates the UK’s tourism industry. Just over half of all overnight visits to the UK in 2016 were to London, and the capital also accounted for just over half of all spending by international visitors.

Even when looking at domestic tourism, the picture is similar: 337 million day visits to London are estimated to have been made in 2016, almost two and a half times the 142 million for the whole of Scotland. In financial terms, such day visits to Scotland and Wales combined were worth around £9 billion, while London took in £14.4 billion.

The British cultural sector encompasses everything from museums to the creative industries, which in themselves contributed more than £90 billion to the economy in 2016 – more than 5 per cent of the total. The sector is also rapidly growing: the UK creative industries grew by 45 per cent between 2010 and 2016.

This is hardly surprising. Culture is arguably our greatest strength, encompassing our past glories and showcasing the intellectual and creative potential of our future. Yet we need this great national asset to work better in two ways – first, through technology, and second, through spreading growth and national pride across the entire country.

That “Culture Is Digital” report, commissioned by the Government in April last year, aimed “to explore how culture and technology can work together to drive audience engagement, boost the capability of cultural organisations and unleash the creative potential of technology”.

It was an ambitious report for an ambitious and flourishing part of the economy, aimed at fusing two growing and ambitious sectors.

The UK’s attraction for “tech-heads” remains unchallenged – London is still by far the most attractive destination in Europe for tech investors, gaining more venture capital investment in 2017 than Germany, France, Spain and Ireland combined.

And the synergy between our technology and cultural sectors was obvious at the launch – with Sky and the Natural History Museum showing off their new VR project; the National Science Museum and Alchemy VR taking you on a journey to Earth from the International Space Station, with astronaut Tim Peake as your guide; the National Gallery showing off their new app, which allows you to hold your phone up against any work of art in the entire collection, before giving you a history and a description of the piece, the history behind it, the hidden meanings… there was much more, and so much of it was brilliant.

It showed what the report aimed to make clear: that “technology allows cultural experiences to be more accessible than ever; whether viewing collections online, experiencing immersive theatre or purchasing e-tickets for productions.” 5 It goes on to state that “in using new technologies, there is the potential to reach out to new as well as existing audiences, including those who may have been previously disengaged or uninterested, and provide a hook for audiences to experience culture in new or ‘deeper’ ways” and pledges the Government’s support for this.

But standing in that room in central London, I couldn’t help thinking – even as I found myself in awe of the projects and ambition on display – that it was a million miles away from the Inverbervie museum I’d helped open but a few weeks before. So how could a small community attraction based in the public library of a town in the Howe of the Mearns benefit from this investment of time and money into a burgeoning sector?

It set me thinking. In the North-East of Scotland, we are lucky enough to host two magnificent trails. The Victorian Heritage Trail takes visitors on a tour of Royal Deeside and beyond, tracing the footsteps of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and John Brown as they explored this part of the world in the mid to late 19th century. The Castle Trail takes advantage of the fact that Aberdeenshire is home to over 300 castles, stately homes and ruins; following the trail, a tourist can attempt to get around, if not all of them, then at least most.

Both of these trails are hugely popular, contributing to Aberdeenshire’s position as the top local authority in Scotland outside of the Highlands and the three main cities (Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow) in terms of Gross Value Added by tourism.

It struck me that a similar “trail” is what the many museums of the UK need. A digital cultural trail, connecting the paintings in the Tate to the portraits in the Aberdeen Art Gallery – the Lewis Chess Men in the British Museum to Viking collections in Orkney.

My proposal is that the Government should create a dozen trails in each of these areas, focused on digital apps but also perhaps commissioning a book for each, tying together the trails in a way that encourages tourists – both domestic and international – to visit these places.

By making this digital, it means we can help tourists who may not always speak perfect English to access our unique history – as well as bring together parts of our heritage that are widely separated by distance.

These trails would be a real celebration of our history – proud tributes to our past and history, rather than the exercises in self-flagellation that you so often get from parts of the Left, or the politicised rewritings of the SNP.

A poll a few years ago found that our history was the thing that made people most proud to be British.7 This should be a way for people to feel that pride in the country they live in.

Such a trail would end up linking the stories behind artefacts in a country home in Aberdeenshire to the House of Commons and National Portrait Gallery in London – given that George Hamilton, 4th Earl of Aberdeen and owner of Haddo House in Scotland was one of Queen Victoria’s Prime Ministers in post at the outbreak of the war in Crimea and appointed Gladstone to Chancellor of the Exchequer.

If a visitor to the Natural History Museum spies an interesting fossil, their “natural history trail” app (I am a politician not a PR man – someone else can do the titles!) could tell them where to find more of those fossils, be that a museum in Dorset or Yorkshire and direct them to it.

Each trail could have a celebrity presenter to provide a voiceover and help draw together each thread (for example, David Starkey on the Tudors). And we should make them available and accessible free of charge, and encourage overseas tourist groupings to use them – so that before people visit they can find out about the country beyond London. We could also put tour companies companies in touch with those institutions that make up each trail to create group discounts – encouraging tourists to travel outside London.

A dozen trails could be created – celebrating some of the greatest inventions, discoveries, works, buildings and places that give Britain the greatest national history in the world. A starter for 12 is provided below: the final list might be slightly different, but the key is that these trails would be genuinely exciting and innovative, with each one linking places and people across the entire British Isles.

1. A literature trail, taking in everything from Dickens to Shakespeare via Jane Austen

2. The Victoria trail, taking in some of the key moments of her reign, from the Crimean War to her Diamond Jubilee

3. The transport trail, taking in our railway history and the rise of the motor car – from George Stephenson’s Rocket to the Goodwood Festival of Speed

4. The abolition of slavery trail, revisiting the struggle to abolish slavery across the British Empire and beyond

5. The Tudor trail, focusing on the dynasty that helped create our modern state

6. The Agricultural and Industrial Revolution trail, showing how changes in British farming and industry drove changes that would reshape the world

8. The natural history trail, tracing the prehistoric origins of these islands, and encompassing the life and work of Charles Darwin and the continuing conservation work at places like Kew Gardens or so many other institutions

9. The pre-1066 trail, reminding people that even before the Norman Conquest these islands were already connected, taking in Saxon, Viking and Celtic history from Stonehenge to Inverbervie

10. The India trail, celebrating the links between India and the UK

11. The China trail, similarly celebrating the links between China and the UK

12. The Union trail, celebrating the links forged in the Act of Union and subsequent links between the different countries of the UK

A project on this scale would require commitment and money – though not a great deal of the latter compared to the benefits that could be reaped.

It would require the great cultural establishments and governments of these islands to work together – but the results could be transformative to our small community museums. Everyone remembers the 2012 Olympic ceremony as a positive and forward-thinking celebration of what it meant to be British. What we need is to recapture that spirit and feeling.

In using digital technology to connect our great cultural establishments in London and Edinburgh to attractions and museums around the country, we would help support our smaller, in some cases, struggling museums. So whatever funding is available should go toward helping these museums to develop their voices and supporting their staff as much as the national showcases.

Such trails would demonstrate what I know to be fact – that the four corners of this nation are more united than divided; have more in common, share more, are linked by far more than an act of union. Our little islands, connected by bridges to a wider whole, and a shared history. The whole picture, not just an extract. That would prove that culture really was digital. That really would put us on the map.

This article was first published in “New Blue: Ideas for the Next Generation”, a collection of essays by young Conservative MPs published by the Centre for Policy Studies. 

Andrew Bowie is MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.