Digital Placemaking Heritage

Are heritage attractions doing enough to attract young visitors?

Date Published:

Child looking away from the camera, at a Victorian-style museum hall, with glass cases containing exhibits to the left and adults in the background.

Children and young people are often seen as passive inheritors of our heritage. Their portrayal in the popular media regularly suggests apathy and disinterest, just look at the photos that went viral of schoolchildren on their phones in the presence of a Rembrandt masterpiece (although it’s clear, some portrayals are certainly not accurate). However, as the Heritage Fund’s Sarah Lanchin says, “children and young people enjoy heritage and can become strong advocates for the future”.

According to the DCMS Taking Part Survey, the percentage of children (5 to 15 years old) who visited a heritage site from 2017 to 2018 remains the same as the previous year. The government survey saw a 5% drop in young museum visitors, attributing it mainly to the decline in family visits—the first in a decade.

The Scottish Tourism Alliance, meanwhile, found that 31% of 16 to 24-year-olds were interested in history, but only 16% of them were interested in heritage. Cost was the primary drawback, as the majority of respondents said they were only willing to pay spend up to £5 to £10 per visit. Interestingly, more than 60% were willing to pay a yearly membership fee of £23 provided that it comes with cafe discounts or property apps.

Encouragingly, there are a number of current initiatives that seek to connect children and young people to the UK’s heritage, such as Takeover Day by Kids in Museums and the £10 million Kick the Dust fund, that aims to transform how heritage engages young people aged 11 to 25. As these programmes demonstrate, it’s vital to keep supporting young people to appreciate their history, as they will carry the torch, protect these sites, and pass on our histories to the children that will come after them.

Barriers and Constraints

Why do young people refuse to visit heritage sites? Several studies have pointed out key indicators—from practical matters to organisational issues—that all contributed to the decline in participation and engagement from this demographic.

1. Practical Barriers

A study from Kids in Museums identified practical barriers and hurdles to the participation of children in museums, including:

2. Constraints on Organisations

Study from Heritage Fund on young people
 ‘What makes it difficult for you to develop / deliver work with young people aged 11-25?’  Source: Heritage Lottery Fund

The Heritage Lottery Fund zeroed in on barriers that two-thirds of heritage organisations in the UK encounter:

3. Lack of Interpretation

Plenty of heritage sites do not cater to younger demographics. Since each child cannot be expected to be a history enthusiast, they need help to understand the items on display and how each affected our past, and possibly, any implications to the present and the future.

This lack of relevance and empathy to young people has only furthered the divide between heritage sites and their engagement, according to Museums and Galleries specialist copywriter, Tony Jones.

Linking The Next Generation With The Past

While the numbers do not look promising, having this in-depth analysis of the situation has enabled several programmes to take place across the country, all of which aim to reach out to the younger generation and make heritage sites more attractive destinations in a wealth of ways. How are digital technologies being used to encourage greater participation?

1. Digitising Heritage Sites

Since young people prefer to go on social media than visit heritage sites, engaging them through these platforms will go a long way. A survey of 2000 18-30 year olds by OnePoll in 2018 found 52% of 18 to 30-year-olds stated that a heritage site’s online presence will encourage them to visit in person.

As new technologies have grown exponentially in recent years, organisations have provided all sorts of digital interactions to engage audiences and allow them to explore heritage sites afresh.

Today, you’ll see museums using high-resolution images, 3D models, video recordings, live streaming and immersive applications (VR and AR) to replicate the experience of visiting the location to an online audience, as well as offering a new dimension to those on site.

Birmingham Museum, for one, regularly broadcasts live streams of their art exhibitions, allowing their social media followers to virtually visit the museum. For instance, last March, they broadcasted a live virtual tour of their Women Power Protest exhibit, wherein one of their officers answered live questions and provided an hour-long tour describing each installation.

The British Museum, meanwhile, started using 3D photogrammetry to upload 3D models of various museum artifacts like the Rosetta Stone. Those who visit their website can virtually interact with the stone, zoom in and look closer at the hieroglyphs carved on its surface, and see the artifact in all angles.

These innovations enable stories to be told in novel and creative ways, opening-up the histories and the materiality of the museums and their objects to young people. Organisations, in turn, can collect data to analyse their responses and understand how to better engage young people in cultural heritage.

2. Digital Placemaking

Well-crafted location-specific, digitally-enabled experiences and services can enhance or radically shift a young person’s understanding of the history of a site, as well as an artifact on display. New stories can be told and presented in multiple ways, providing a multi-layered contextual overview.

But for this to work, the needs of young audiences must drive a project and not the technology or the financial ROI. Recreate magic and joyful moments for them through digital placemaking first, then footfall and engagement will inevitably follow.

Although some might argue that physical experiences supersede that of digital ones, studies show that the younger generations are much more open to embracing the combination of digital engagements and heritage.

Our Battersea Power Station Heritage Trail app demonstrates how possible it is to marry the elements of digital engagements with history. Visitors can download the free app on their phones, and then listen to audio trails while exploring the area, providing each guest—young and old—the avenue to develop a deeper connection with the site’s rich heritage.

3. Understanding Young People’s Attitudes

How the younger generation views heritage sites plays a huge role in figuring out how to properly engage them. The Scottish Tourism Alliance surveyed 1,148 respondents (11 to 25 years old), identifying their attitudes towards heritage. They found that young people are interested in history, but the sensible approach is to generate engagement instead of piquing their curiosity. Digital tools are one way of enabling such engagement but the report reminds us that passionate and friendly guides are equally compelling. Remember – use your technology wisely and as a part of the whole visitor experience.

4. Cross-institutional Consultations

Heritage experiences should be created with young people, not for them. A cross-institutional consultation—which includes students, institutions, young people, and the public—will allow your organisation to have a much deeper understanding of their preferences.

Museums and Heritage provided a 16-point action plan that you can employ, which includes:

Calvium’s Family Trail app for Tower Bridge is a prime example of this. We designed this visitor app with kids and their families, and not for them, which led to its ongoing success.

Supporting Young People’s Engagement with Heritage

Engaging young people in a particular museum or a location means, in part, thinking about the wealth of opportunities that digital technologies afford and the interest, curiosity and engagement they can engender. Once the thinking is done – remember to act on it! For young people, this includes:

Sir Nicholas Serota opens Chapter 2 of Learning to Live with a reference to the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child—to which the UK is a signatory. He cites Article 31 on children’s right “to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.” Thus, a visit to a museum should “be a normal, familiar and everyday experience for all young people in this country.”

Thirty years later and digital placemaking and digital technology is surely at the forefront of this battle to keep young minds engaged in the past. Without doubt, digital placemaking is a ripe and fantastic opportunity to connect children and young people to the UK’s heritage.