Cultural commerce’s role in reviving the visitor attraction sector needs fresh thinking

Rishi Sunak has handed visitor attractions a multimillion lifeline. But there’s a bigger job to be done here. We need to rethink visitor attractions, and recognise their role in reconnecting museums, galleries and venues with local communities 

For generations, museums, galleries and visitor experiences were regarded as little more than buildings that stored objects. People could filter in, spend a few minutes gazing at something on a wall or plinth, before moving on to the next curiosity, all in stony silence. No wonder numbers were falling.

Attitudes have definitely become more favourable as these spaces have evolved to be more entertaining and interactive. When people in the visitor attraction business started asking people to get involved, rather than telling them what to think, things changed for the better.

But despite these feelgood vibes, many museums and galleries are struggling to survive thanks to Covid-19. So, as we look towards May 17th, when opening restrictions are set to lift, what can cultural commerce do to re-energise itself? And how can attractions make themselves more relevant to communities?

Rethink the role of retail

Despite events of the past 12 months, we’re still a nation that likes to shop. E-commerce has risen from 21.8% to 30% across all retail sales in the past two years. And as more digital natives reach their spending prime, that’ll only increase. But those numbers also show that there are plenty of people who crave in-real-life retail. Bricks and mortar outlets provide an opportunity to slow down and browse. With so many mainstream retailers falling by the wayside, the cultural commerce sector is in a better place to engage with customers who are starved of choice.

More than ever, it needs to provide something that you can’t get online. Rather than just ‘click and go’, retailers could take the opportunity to enrich every experience. We might be ‘hands-off’ for a little while longer, but in-real-life consumer commerce can still provide a multi-sensory feast.

At the Schlossmuseum in Linz, Austria, we are transforming the entrance hall into a living experience to support the museum’s artifacts. It’s part of a move to revive the museum’s fortunes and reconnect with the community. Artisans will demonstrate the techniques that were used to create the ancient objects that lie within – weaving, wood-turning, pot-throwing, etc. People will be invited to watch, maybe even have a go, and then buy. And the pop-up style is flexible enough to be changed to complement new exhibitions.

When local people cotton on to the fact that there’s something for everyone, a trip to the local museum becomes a much more attractive option.

Master the art of storytelling

As well as encouraging people to attend venues with offers of interactive displays, retail and ancillary spaces can serve to tell a wider story about the local area. Live music, wine tastings and talks, for example, add colour and provide a more immersive experience.

The OMM in Turkey found a nice way to make a connection between itself and its community. All the cutlery and crockery in its restaurant areas have been made by local makers – a lovely touch that roots the museum in its environment.

Art in its local community? It began with deep immersion in the locality, and from that came ideas such as the four three-metre-high pavilions, inspired by the traditional Dai Pai dongs of Hong Kong food market stalls, which form the centrepiece of the store and will act as an ever-changing showcase of artists and merchandise.

In the Other Shop, products are displayed in cabinets redolent of a Chinese apothecary. But it’s more than these eye-catching centrepieces. You reflect a locality in all the tiny details. Where most museum shops are white, the M+ Shop uses a colour associated with a popular Chinese soap opera. We used local materials, like clay-effect concrete and bamboo, in our design. The overall sense we aim for is that of a bustling Hong Kong street. We wanted to take it as far as we could from the bland, sombre store people might be expecting.

And this has been carried through into the merchandising strategy. An artist has created a collage of Hong Kong imagery and used it to cover skateboards. Bags are made from fishermen’s nets recycled from a local island.

Think local and group together

There’s a chance for regional attractions to have their moment in the sun as people are less inclined to travel. Could these unsung heroes provide a new heartbeat for our beleaguered towns? They could provide support for local craft workers and producers with market places, bringing communities together and supporting them. Good for the makers and traders and great PR for the venue.

Visitor attractions have the power to create unity on a social and local level. Local museums can provide a sense of belonging – that role could be extended to helping people reconnect with their community and heritage after months in lockdown.

Strength in numbers

If smaller venues got together to build a combined offer for consumers they could improve their firepower. Subscriptions, discounts, offers for multiple attractions… There are all kinds of avenues for local experiences to explore if they pooled resources and expertise. Subscribers could be offered something bigger and better – and people could be persuaded to try things beyond their usual remit.

As we move into the summer, people are going to start thinking of ways to re-engage with the wider world. There’s a huge opportunity for visitor attractions and cultural commerce here. Let’s not miss the boat and end up waiting for Rishi’s next handout.